By Gina Pongetti Angeletti

Photos by Grace Chiu

At the 2008 Olympics, the U.S. men’s team’s gritty performance earned the bronze medal and a spot next to powerhouse programs China and Japan on the podium. At the 2011 World Championships, the team also earned a podium position, bronze again (alongside stalwarts China and Japan once more). At the 2012 Olympics, the team qualified in the top spot, but missed out on the podium in finals. At the 2014 Worlds, they were back on the podium, securing bronze again. During this six-year period, the team established themselves as a world power in the sport. But since that event, the team has left every Worlds (and the 2016 Olympics) empty-handed in the team competition.

After the disappointment of the 2016 Olympics, USA Gymnastics decided to make a change with the leadership of the program, bringing aboard Olympic medalist Brett McClure (replacing former National Team Coordinator Kevin Mazeika and renaming the position high performance director). “The high performance director’s position was created last fall at a strategic planning session for the 2020 Olympic cycle after fifth-place team finishes at the last two Olympic Games,” a release from Team USA said at the time.

McClure has implemented a variety of methods to start to reshape the program. In his early days, he developed a system in which athletes reported in nearly daily with trainings, nutrition, and sleep patterns to try to optimize performance. He’s focused on accountability. He’s preached hit percentage. He’s worked with athletes to try to increase their D-values to better match up with the world stage. And he’s known for his spreadsheets where he meticulously tracks performance. Unfortunately, you don’t get a medal for practice percentages. There is no end of year “crown” awarded for the average of your last hundred routines. Meets matter. Period.

The quest to get back onto the Olympic podium hits a critical point here in Stuttgart. The event serves as the team qualifier for Tokyo and it’s also a chance for the program and its athletes to establish themselves in the run-up to the Games. A podium position here would go a long way towards getting the program back on track to its potential. And in addition to the team competition, they of course are looking for medal opportunities in the all-around and individual events (max two per country in both).

During podium training and in all of the training we witnessed, the team has looked sharp, with hit sets and a consistent overall performance. But in qualification today, the team endured a tough rollercoaster ride to ultimately secure a standing that should get them through to Tokyo. The performance did not match what they had been doing in training, however, and was a nail-biter from the start. Reaching the true potential is where the team has struggled and McClure knows there is still work to be done there.

“It was not the start we wanted to this year’s World Championships; it was not indicative of any of our preparation work leading up to the event,” he said following the qualification round. “These guys have been doing everything we’ve asked, hitting routines left and right. They just got out of their game out there on the competition floor. Hopefully, that’s out of our system and we can focus on what we know how to do best and that’s to do good gymnastics.”

In finals, they’ll be on a mission to get back on that podium and set themselves up for a solid, consistent and confident run to Tokyo 2020.

Here’s more of what team had to say following today’s qualification round:

Sam Mikulak

On the atypical fall-ridden start to the day: “I just, I never woke up. That’s like the best way I can put it. I just felt so heavy and sluggish today. My feng shui was not where I wanted it to be.”

On the gravity of the mistakes: “It is something where it’s so extreme that it is not something that I can really dwell on, and I can just focus on all the good routines and good training I did going forward.”

On not knowing even if they would qualify as a team for the Olympics: “Today was a disaster, but, I mean, we knew it would take, like, a triple disaster for us to really not make qualifications. Honestly, this is probably the worst we will ever be in a competition collectively.”

Yul Moldauer

On his perception of how the competition went: “Not bad, but not good, but something medium. You never want to go out with a bang on qualifications, you know, you don’t win medals on qualification day, so now we have some things to go back and really focus on. It’s something nice knowing that you can do even better going into finals. It’s not like you had your top performance in qualifications.”

On what it feels going into finals: “We haven’t been on the podium in years, and we have nothing to lose right now, we only have something to gain. All we have to do is go out and do our gymnastics.”

On maximizing their potential: “[We] just have to go perform, [we] don’t have to compete with China, [we] don’t have to compete with Japan, or Russia. We need to walk into that arena and just look at each other and perform with each other. If we perform our gymnastics, we could be the greatest team.”

Akash Modi

On how he felt the day went: “I am very happy actually, [high bar] was a great routine except for letting go of the bar, and I went a little early on the dismount. I feel confident for team finals.”

On if he knew how much of a deficit they were in mid-way through the meet: “I love following scores. I was looking at it the whole way.”

Mark Williams

On the uncharacteristic day: “We have been doing really well in training. I kind of felt like it was going to pass. We were doing too well in our preparations for it to get away from us, and it was really awesome to see some of the other guys pick it up. [Sam] just needs to get back in the groove.”

On what he was doing during the meet to help the team: “I was just trying to manage the guys and make them feel comfortable. As a group, after a couple of events I’m like, ‘Hey, we’ve got some work to do. We can’t just let this happen.’”

On finding out that, even though the day isn’t over, they most likely will qualify: “We can have a different outlook in finals knowing that we qualified for the Olympic Games and that, at this point, it’s all kind of gravy.”