SAN JOSE — Saturday afternoon was the coronation, as Danell Leyva and John Orozco, the former and current US champions, left the rest of the men’s field in their chalk dust to claim the two automatic places on the Olympic men’s gymnastics team.
Sunday morning comes the deliberation as the five-member committee chooses the other three athletes who’ll make up what figures to be another podium squad in London.
Faced with the Olympic game of reverse musical chairs — identifying five men to cover six events — the selectors will be piecing together, with the aid of a computer program, the highest possible team score that will produce a medal at the Games.
“That’s the No. 1 goal,” said national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika, who will confer with coach representatives Mike Burns and Yoichi Tomita, athlete representative Kevin Tan, and at-large member Steve Butcher. “We look at everything.”
The decision became more complex after Michigan undergrad Sam Mikulak, who’d won Thursday’s session, sprained his left ankle on his vault landing that day and was limited to the pommel horse Saturday.
“I really wish I could have gotten up there like a performer — that big crowd with everyone cheering,” said Mikulak, who was sitting third after the first three sessions, which included the national championships. “It was killing me inside. I woke up this morning saying, ‘I’m just going to grit my teeth and do it.’ But the coaches and the training staff were trying to think ahead.”
Had he remained sound, Mikulak almost certainly would have been tapped for a squad that can use his skills on vault and parallel bars. Under the selection procedures, which are only a trifle less complex than the Treaty of Ghent, Mikulak could have petitioned directly onto the team provided that he could show competitive readiness at next week’s camp in Colorado Springs.
Once he took the podium, though, that option vanished, so the committee will consider Mikulak’s body of work so far.
“Thank God I was killing my sets in the past,” he said. “I did everything I could to get to where I am now.”
Sweating it out, too, will be Jonathan Horton, the sole Beijing veteran, who placed third in the all-around standings, nearly 6 points behind Orozco.
“I haven’t been in a situation before where I have to wait until the next day to find out whether I’m on the team or not, so I’ll probably be a little stressed out,” said Horton, who came back from foot surgery after last year’s world meet.
Horton, who won silver on the high bar in 2008, was top man here on rings and second on parallel bars behind Leyva, the world titlist on the apparatus. So he figures to be a likely choice, as does Jake Dalton, who was best on floor and vault. That would leave one spot open for a specialist, probably Alexander Naddour, who is easily the team’s master of the pommel horse.
The only two men assured of a peaceful (and joyful) night’s sleep were Leyva (368.350) and Orozco (367.400), both of whom met the requirement of finishing among the top three in half of the events.
“It was a huge weight off my shoulders,” said Leyva, a Cuban emigre whose coach/stepfather Yin Alvarez threw a celebratory uppercut after each routine. “It was crazy.”
Orozco, who grew up in the Bronx as the son of Puerto Rican parents, wept with disbelief when he saw what his numbers had earned him.
“This is it, it’s finally done,” proclaimed Orozco, who ended up in the gym after his father, a sanitation worker, noticed a flier for free lessons. “I just can’t believe it right now. For so long I’ve been dreaming about this every night before I go to bed. I can’t believe I actually did it.”
Only one woman — likely to be either world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber or Gabrielle Douglas — will earn an automatic ticket after Sunday night’s finale. The selection committee of national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, international elite committee chairman Steve Rybacki, and athlete representative Terin Humphrey will choose the remaining four.
All but certain to be picked is Needham, Mass., native Aly Raisman, the team’s top floor athlete, who is third in the overall standings. McKayla Maroney, the world vault champion, is a probable choice as well. The fifth spot could come down to 15-year-old Kyla Ross, whose bars expertise is badly needed, and Beijing medalist Alicia Sacramone, who has made a courageous comeback after tearing an Achilles’ tendon at last autumn’s world championships.