RIO DE JANEIRO — A sickly snap as a French gymnast landed horribly wrong on a vault. A lighting outage in the middle of Chris Brooks’s high bar routine. Ungainly falls from the pommel horse by two of their more reliable competitors.
The U.S. men’s gymnastics team weathered it all Saturday at Rio Olympic Arena to qualify for Monday’s prestigious team final with the second-highest score (270.405), edged only by China (270.461) and placing ahead of Russia (269.612).
Moreover, the squad’s most gifted member, seven-time NCAA champion Sam Mikulak, 23, impressed sufficiently on floor, vault and both parallel and high bar to compensate for his tumble from the horse — the apparatus that continues to bedevil this generation of American gymnasts — to qualify for the individual all-around medal round.
Mikulak’s score of 89.041 placed him seventh. Brooks, the only other American vying for one of the 24 spots in the all-around, made the cut with a score of 86.331.
Four years ago in London, the U.S. men stood on the same lofty perch, qualifying first for the team competition at the 2012 Olympics. But once the qualifying scores were tossed out and the top eight nations competed for medals in earnest, the Americans finish fifth, well shy of podium honors, so much of their potential unrealized.
Mikulak was a member of that 2012 Olympic team. He vowed Saturday that this squad would write a different story here in Rio de Janeiro.
“We’re not going to be complacent this time,” said Mikulak, who became the first freshman to earn the NCAA all-around title while competing for Michigan. “We’re going to make sure we come in with a chip on our shoulder. We’ve done nothing but qualify.”
U.S. Olympic Coach Mark Williams, who coached three members of the five-man Rio squad at Oklahoma, believes the disappointment of London has had a transformative effect that will help the 2016 squad.
“We’ve been there before,” Williams said after Saturday’s qualifying and a congratulatory visit from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. “I think they understand they have a job to do on Monday night that is very different than coming in and qualifying. They want to finish things this time.”
Saturday, then, meant doing enough to lock up a spot in the team finals.
Rounding out the list of eight countries to qualify for team finals: Japan, Britain, Brazil, Ukraine and Germany.
Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev posted the top individual all-around score (91.964). The top eight on each of the six apparatus advance to apparatus finals next week (with a maximum of two per country).
The challenge, as the Americans moved from one apparatus to another, was to stay focused as cheers rose and fell for the Brazilians, Germans, Frenchmen and others competing all around them.
Mikulak was just about to compete when Frenchman Samir Ait Said’s vault went awry. The sound upon landing reverberated in the sparsely filled arena, and all eyes turned to the mat, where Said lay on his back, holding aloft his horrifically contorted lower leg, bent at a right angle midway up his calf. Medics arrived, and he was carried off on a stretcher to applause and an ovation.
French team leader Corrine Moustard-Callon confirmed later that Ait Said had broken his left tibia and had been taken to a hospital
It was the second time Ait Said, a specialist on rings, had broken a leg during a vault. He suffered three fractures to his right tibia after a fall during a vault at the 2012 European championships and missed the London Olympics as a result.
Asked whether he was aware of the extent of the Frenchman’s injury when he stepped up to compete, Mikulak said: “I heard a bunch of ‘Ooos,’ and I just made sure I stayed focused on the routine I was about to do. It’s always a shame when there’s an injury. This sport is absolutely brutal. . . . To go down like that at the Olympic Games is a horrible, horrible thing. But you still have to stay focused, get in the zone and do the gymnastics you came out here to do.”
Later in the proceedings, the lights above the high bar dimmed during Brooks’s routine. He finished without a major problem, and Williams, the U.S. coach, chose to continue with the rotation, unsure how long the delay would be if he demanded the lights be fixed between routines.
Led by Mikulak, a fist-pumping cheerleader after every rotation, the Americans posted the highest scores in their group on floor exercise, parallel bars and high bar. Trouble came on pommel horse.
Mikulak’s lower body seemed to wilt as the routine neared its conclusion. His legs brushed the apparatus, then he fell off entirely just before his dismount. He chalked his hands anew, got back on and finished for a score of 13.1. Brooks managed just 12.766 after his fall.
“I got a little ahead of myself,” Mikulak said. “It’s something that I’m just going to make sure I learn from today and don’t do on team finals.”
Williams called the overall effort “not bad,” acknowledging his disappointment in the two shaky pommel horse routines. He said his message to the team between now and Monday will be consistency and focus, noting that Monday’s crowd is sure to be raucous in support of the Brazilian men.
“It’s going to be really loud, and guys are going to be in the middle of routines when that happens,” he said. “They’re going to have to be ready for that.”