A bad beginning for the U.S. men’s gymnastics team in the qualification round on Saturday turned into as happy an ending as they could have expected.
It rebounded from Yul Moldauer’s leadoff fall from the parallel bars to qualify fourth for the team final and cheered three-time Olympian Sam Mikulak of Newport Coast and national and trials champion Brody Malone into the all-around final.
Malone also reached the horizontal bar event final with the fourth-best score in qualifying, 14.533. Mikulak, who plans to retire after these Games, gave himself another chance to win his first Olympic medal by qualifying fifth on the parallel bars to earn a spot in that event final.
Moldauer reached the floor exercise final with a sixth-ranked 14.866 that included an event-leading execution score of 9.066, and Alec Yoder made the most of his event-specialist role by advancing to the pommel horse final with a sharp performance and a 15.200 score that ranked fourth.
Powerhouses Japan (262.251), China (262.061) and Russian Olympic Committee (261.945) left the spirited but overmatched Americans (256.761) in their chalk dust. The scores don't carry over, still, logically, there’s too hefty a talent gap for Mikulak and his Olympic rookie teammates to overcome and earn a medal in Monday’s team final. Emotionally, the Americans aren’t willing to concede.
“Anything can happen,” Moldauer said. “Do you believe in miracles?”
That’s pretty much what would be required to dislodge any of the three leaders from a medal position. The U.S. men last won a team medal in 2008, when they won bronze at Beijing.
“I think it would take a flawless competition for us and a horrible competition for them,” Mikulak said. “We’re just going to hope for the best in ourselves, and wherever we land we’re just going to be proud of the performances we put out there.”
Malone was 11th in the all-around rankings with 85.298 points and Mikulak was 14th at 84.664. Both had surprising wobbles: Mikulak, normally strong on the horizontal bar, scored only 12.866. Malone, steady in winning the NCAA title for Stanford before adding the national and trials titles to his resume, went out of bounds during his floor exercise routine. Both still qualified for the 24-man all-around final, which will be on Wednesday.
Daiki Hashimoto of Japan led the qualifiers with 88.531 points, followed by 2019 all-around world champion Nikita Nagornyy of the team competing under the ROC name, with 87.897 points. Xiao Ruoteng of China was a whisper behind at 87.832.
In earlier qualifying, two-time Olympic all-around champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan, who planned to compete only on the horizontal bar here, took a bad fall and didn’t reach the event final. That might have been the last competition of his stellar career, which includes seven Olympic and 21 world championship medals.
The ban on spectators at these Games robbed him of the ovation he should have received in tribute to his exceptional career, a sendoff that would have been especially loud in his home country. “I couldn't perform what I have practiced. That's how I simply think. In the last three Olympic Games I could perform what I practiced. But I couldn't do that at these Olympics,” Uchimura said.
The Americans vowed to stay relaxed and focused as they prepare for Monday’s team final. They’ve been hanging out a lot together, and on Friday they joined the women’s team to stage an unofficial opening ceremony (they skipped the real one in order to stay fresh for competition). “It started as ‘OK, let’s go take some pictures.’ Some people brought a flag, and then some people started filming, then everyone came down and we started marching,” Mikulak said. “Spontaneity is the real joy.”
Winning medals would be another kind of joy, though that might require the miracle Moldauer mentioned. Either way, Mikulak said, this has been a great ride.
“We’ve really been able to make the most out of this experience and it has brought us a lot closer than I think I’ve ever been able to get close with my previous teammates,” he said. “And being out there with these guys is the most fun I’ve ever had from my Olympic experience.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.