Slips, falls and tears were not what the U.S. men’s gymnastics team was expecting at the Olympics.
The men wanted a bronze medal or better, and after qualifying in first place for Monday’s team final, they were primed for a breakthrough and their best performance since the United States won gold at the boycotted 1984 Games.
But things began sloppily on floor exercise, got worse with rough rides on pommel horse and hit bottom with a crash landing on vault. Despite a soaring finale by Miami’s Danell Leyva on horizontal bar, it wasn’t enough to make up for what went wrong. Not nearly enough.
The United States finished fifth, a step back from its third-place finishes at the 2008 Olympics and 2011 world championships.
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China performed with effortless precision on its last four rotations to win its second Olympic gold medal in a row. China has not lost a major title in six years.
While the Americans hugged and flicked away tears of disappointment, the Chinese exulted, holding aloft yellow stars and clenched fists.
In contrast to the United States, it was a historic night for Great Britain — not known for its acrobatic prowess — which won its first medal in men’s team gymnastics in 100 years. Great Britain did not even qualify for the finals at the 2008 Olympics, finished 10th at the 2011 world championships and barely nabbed a spot in its own Olympics at a last-chance test event in January.
The British athletes were ecstatic, even after their initially posted silver-medal finish was downgraded after a judges’ inquiry into a pommel horse score for Japan’s Kohei Uchimura revised the point totals, pushing Japan from fourth to second, Ukraine from third to fourth and Great Britain from second to third.
The Americans didn’t benefit. They were stuck in fifth, almost two points out of medal range.
“It would be easy to mope and be depressed but what we’re about is getting back up and fighting harder,” said Leyva, who lives in Homestead and trains in West Kendall. “We had an off day, but we never lost our spirit.”
After the women’s team final Tuesday, Leyva and John Orozco return for the all-around final, followed by event finals later in the week for Leyva, Jonathan Horton, Jake Dalton and Sam Mikulak.
But where they really wanted to show their amazing stuff was during the six-ring circus of the team competition, where gymnasts are simultaneously flipping and spinning in dizzying succession on one apparatus after another. It’s exhilarating to shift your focus from the handiwork of horse to the launches off vault to the muscle-busting moves on rings. You hear a cheer go up to your left, then react to the gasp on your right.
Spectators inside North Greenwich Arena waved Union Jack flags and screamed for the home team, which gained momentum until concluding with a series of fluid tumbling runs and the highest score on floor.
“To have the crowd erupting after each apparatus — it was mad,” said team captain Louis Smith, who aced pommel horse with a 15.966. “That’s the Olympic fever. It adds extra pressure, but you can use it to your advantage.”
The U.S. team seemed to melt under it. Four athletes were competing in their first Olympics. Uncharacteristic mistakes rattled them and deductions piled up. Mikulak began with a solid floor routine, but put his hands down to steady his dismount and wound up with 14.6 points.
On horse, typically the U.S. team’s weakest event, Leyva’s clearance was low until his legs flew apart and he was bucked off. He completed his routine but stomped off the podium shaking his head. His 13.4 score was second lowest of the night.
“I felt something weird at the beginning and didn’t stay relaxed, which is key on horse,” Leyva said. “The lesson for me was not to rush things.”
Orozco, who has traded supremacy in the United States with Leyva over the past year, appeared the most nervous. He brushed then briefly sat down upon the horse, and his 12.733 was painful.
Orozco’s front handspring double full twist dismount off vault ended with a splat.
“I fell on my butt,” said Orozco, who admitted his technique during practices had not been coming around. “After vault I said, ‘OK, that’s two routines I’ve destroyed.’
“The pressure shouldn’t have an effect, but I guess it does because I didn’t do as well as I had hoped.”
Orozco struggled to stay composed on the sideline as coach Kevin Mazeika spoke with him.
“John is a strong guy so I don’t think he needs cuddling,” Leyva said in defense of him.
Leyva said he missed the energizing presence of his voluble stepdad and coach, Yin Alvarez; only team coaches were allowed on the floor.
“But I heard him from the stands, and I know he’s always there,” Leyva said. “You could see we weren’t scared. And now I know the Olympic feeling, what the crowd sounds like, what the air tastes like — chalk and sweat. We had highs and lows.”
Orozco, the son of Puerto Rican parents from the Bronx, and Leyva, raised by a mother and stepfather who defected from the Cuban gymnastics team to Miami, are both 20 and counted on to be the young guns of the team. But on too many instances Monday, they lacked their usual crisp confidence and flair.
After three rotations, the United States was in last place.
Horton, who won two medals at the 2008 Games and is the senior leader, reminded his teammates their best events were still to come. But the Americans were in a hole while China’s Chen Yibing stilled the rings, Great Britain’s Kristian Thomas dominated the vault and Japan’s mop-topped 5-3 world champ Kohei Uchimura executed his maneuvers in silky form. China qualified in sixth place but demonstrated its experience and unflappable resolve by not committing an error in its last four rotations.
Leyva, world champ on parallel bars, flubbed his positioning midway through his routine and had to ad-lib, as he did at Olympic trials but hit his peach Diamodov and double pike landing. Orozco’s score was a mediocre 15.133.
The United States saved its best for last on the horizontal bar, but it was too late. Orozco made his trademark soft landing. Horton was impeccable and Leyva’s high score of 15.866 took some sting out and showed a quick recovery. Yet afterward, regret. The United States could have capitalized on a night when Japan was not at its best. Horton embraced a red-eyed Leyva, and the Americans circled around their coach.
The Chinese celebrated, Japan won its appeal of a low horse start value for Uchimura, boosting his score by .7 to 14.166. Ukraine stewed. Great Britain was incredulously joyful.
“I’d like to thank my mum and dad for driving me to the gym every day,” Daniel Purvis said.
The Americans shook his hand.