Gymnastics rivals Japan and China face off in team final as U.S. men hope for a medal

Rivals Japan and China face off in team final as U.S. men hope for a medal

Sam Mikulak at 2016 Rio Olympics

It’s been over a decade since the Japanese men’s gymnastics team has won an Olympic gold medal, and they want nothing more than to change that. But their longtime rivals, Team China, and a host of hungry teams like Great Britain, Brazil and the United States are standing between Japan and the top of the podium.

The Japanese should be favored, as they claimed team gold at the 2015 World Championships and have the reigning Olympic all-around champion, Kohei Uchimura, leading the way. But in the qualification round, Uchimura suffered a tough fall off the horizontal bars while on floor, 2015 world floor champion Kenzo Shirai scored nearly a point less in Rio than he did at the last world championships. They ranked fourth at the end of the preliminary round.

Meanwhile China was the top qualifier, looking eager to take revenge for their off-the-podium finish at the 2015 Worlds. It was the first time Japan beat China in a team competition since 2004.

But all teams will enter the final with a clean slate, the qualification scores wiped away. And Japan wasn’t too far behind anyway; about 1.2 points behind top-ranked team China.

The top six qualifiers—China, U.S., Russia, Japan, Great Britain, and Brazil—were all within about two points of each other. Rounding out the eight-team final will be Ukraine and Germany.

Unlike the qualification round, where the lowest score from four gymnasts on each event can be dropped, in the final only three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count.

The U.S. men will be in the same rotation as the Chinese men and will start on floor exercise. The line-up is:

Floor: Alex Naddour, Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton
Pommel horse: Danell Leyva, Mikulak, Alex Naddour
Still rings: Chris Brooks, Dalton, Naddour
Vault: Mikulak, Dalton, Naddour
Parallel bars: Mikulak, Brooks, Leyva
Horizontal bar: Mikulak, Brooks, Leyva

Kicking off on floor exercise should be an advantage for the U.S. men; at the beginning of the night they won’t have to worry as much about losing stamina during the tumbling runs. Getting pommel horse, which was the team’s Achilles heel in London when they finished fifth, out of the way early could either give them a confidence boost if it goes well or motivation to fight their way back if it doesn’t.

Then they end on parallel bars and horizontal bar, where they’re capable of awe-inspiring routines.

At the 2012 London Olympics, the U.S. men finished first in the preliminary round by nearly three points and were riding high off a bronze-medal finish at the 2011 World Championships.

“We had medaled in 2011 at the World Championships,” Jake Dalton said, “and we really believed that we’re that good. Almost anything that we do, we’re gonna come out with a medal, and that’s actually how I viewed it. I was like, ‘God, no matter what we do, we’re gonna come away with a medal.'”

But in the Olympic team final, the young group’s errors started piling up. Mikulak put his hand down on the final tumbling pass of his floor exercise. Leyva and John Orozco made mistakes on the dreaded pommel horse. Orozco sat down the vault of his landing.

With Prince Harry and Prince William watching from the stands, the U.S. team finished fifth, six points behind the Chinese champions.

Mikulak, Dalton and Leyva were on the 2012 London team, while Naddour and Brooks were alternates.

The U.S. men haven’t won team gold since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. They won silver in Athens and bronze in Beijing.

“We didn’t get on the podium, so, that’s been four years of motivation,” Dalton said. “I want to be an Olympic champion and we all do so that’s our spirit and our pride.”

“We want go there and show everybody in the whole world that our country is one of the best in gymnastics.”

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