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London • As Sam Mikulak's circles on top of the pommel horse got faster and faster, a sense of awareness grew in the North Greenwich Arena at the London Olympics.
This kid one of the kids would be carrying this American team as it aimed to back up its claims that it would be in gold-medal contention.
After Saturday, it's hard to argue that the U.S. men aren't.
Mikulak's performance was far from the team's best of the day in fact, it wasn't the Americans' best on the apparatus. But it set the tone for an impressive afternoon that may have some folks rethinking the Americans' role in this event.
"Coming into it," said Mikulak, the defending NCAA champion, "it was like, 'All right, this is my first Olympics, this is going to be my first event, this is the hardest one to stay on, is pommel horse, I just want start on the right foot of the Olympic Games.' "
After stunning collapses by favorites China and Japan, the Americans jumped on top to qualify first going into Monday's team final. Led by four too-young-to-know-better members and one two-time medalist, this team of gymnasts showed signs that it could, indeed, become the first U.S. men's gymnastics team to win gold since 1984.
"I'm smiling," 19-year-old John Orozco said. "I'm all smiles right now."
Led by top all-around qualifiers Danell Leyva's 91.265 and Orozco's 90.597, which was fourth best, the U.S. came out on top of the qualifying phase with a score of 275.342, nearly three points ahead of second-place Russia. Of course, nothing that they did Saturday actually matters statistically.
All scores will be erased for Monday's team final.
But Saturday existed on its own for the Americans, a beautiful string of small successes. Beyond Leyva and Orozco, who will compete later in these Games in the all-around, Mikulak qualified in the individual vault, while Jonathan Horton qualified in high bar, where he won bronze in 2008, and Reno, Nev., native Jacob Dalton qualified in the floor exercise.
Leyva, 20, was consistent from stop to stop, struggling only on the parallel bars. Dalton, 20, competed on three apparatuses, but scored better than 15 on each. Defending NCAA champion Mikulak, 19, from the University of Michigan, made his first routine on pommel horse, and later nailed a 16.3 on vault.
Don't these guys know they're supposed to struggle the first time out?
"I wanted to try to think of it as, 'Hey, this is just another big meet,' " said Orozco, who grew up in the Bronx in New York, "and do my routines and get it over with, especially since it's the first day. I don't want to go all out the first day."
The Americans did not count a single fall Saturday, and have justified their braggadocio.
The U.S. appears set for Monday's team finals, where the format changes to allow just three athletes to compete on each apparatus, and each routine counts.
In that case, the Americans hope that two-time medalist Jonathan Horton, who competed in just four events and will not qualify for the all-around, got the jitters out of the way on Saturday. He fell on pommel horse and parallel bars, but the 26-year-old redeemed himself with a 15.566 on high bar.
It was a timely recovery. His routine came after Mikulak fell hard, and symbolically served as a return of favor. Remember Mikulak's strong performance on pommel horse? It followed a frustrating fall for Horton.
"So clutch," Mikulak said of Horton. "That was one thing I kind of felt bad about, going up first on the event and falling. I felt like I kind of let them down somewhat."
While the U.S. was surging, Japan particularly three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura was falling apart.
The Americans said they weren't distracted by what Japan did, but Leyva said Saturday's mistakes would likely lead to a more precise effort on Monday.
"I know that he's going to go out with so much more fight," Leyva said.
It means the U.S. team will have to, as well, he said, if they want to be in contention for gold.
It was up for the challenge Saturday. Now the five men four very young men just have to go do it again.
Men's gymnastics highlights
• 20-year-old Danell Leyva qualifies atop the individual all-around standings, and the American team leads the way on the first day of men's gymnastics.
• The U.S. has not won team gold since 1984.
• Favorites Japan and China stumble in their sets and qualify fifth and sixth.