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Men’s Olympic Trials Preview

Again with the men!

Amidst the hoopla of next week, with all the competitions and the podium trainings and the women’s things to care about, I’m deeply concerned that I may forget to preview the men’s Olympic Trials. Deeply. AND THEN WHAT WOULD WE DO?!?!? So, just to be safe, I’m doing it now.

It is the Olympic Trials, after all. And as we know, competitions of this magnitude cannot officially begin without making a ranked and numbered list of items most pertinent to the outcome and to our lives. It’s what separates us from the animals.

So, here’s what I’ll be watching at next week’s Man Trials.

1. Everyone except Sam Mikulak

I mean, sure. For fun, obviously. But Sam is pretty…much the least important part of the Olympic Trials. He’s going to Rio. It’s happening. Mikulak is the US’s least pipe-dreamy shot at getting somewhere close to an all-around medal, and the team may or may not need him on all six events in the team final (more on that later).

He could fall a crapload of times at Trials, and that wouldn’t change his status, nor would it matter that much in the long run because his Trials performance won’t be at all indicative of how he’ll fare at the Olympics, either way. All of us who are not warlocks have long since given up trying to predict when Darth Sam will decide to rear his ugly head.

So, to the others.

2. Donnell Whittenburg — Lock or Likely?

Heading into nationals, I think most of us viewed Mikulak and Whittenburg as close-ish to lock status with everyone else fighting for the remaining three spots. Then something happened on the second day of nationals, namely Whittenburg going to Womp Town via the Splatty Express. Suddenly, the highest-possible team score coming out of nationals belonged to the Mikulak, Dalton, Brooks, Ruggeri, Naddour quintet, leaving out Whittenburg and casting at least some doubt on his team status by opening the question of whether he and Dalton ultimately cancel each other out too much.

Whittenburg is supposed to destroy the world on vault and floor, but at nationals, even his hits were a couple tenths behind Dalton, Ruggeri, and sometimes Mikulak, making him look more like a 1-2 eventer than the 4-eventer the team needs him to be. Now, I still think Whittenburg erases that doubt with a hit meet and ultimately will make the team because he has been part of the In Club this whole quad and the men’s selection committee only punishes members of the In Club for poor performances when they’re Danell Leyva. But, there are more questions around him now than there should be, along with a somewhat compelling argument for excluding him largely because of…

3. Beam of starlight, Paul Ruggeri

To my mind, no development at nationals complicated the team selection picture more than Paul Ruggeri’s top-three placement on three events. Mwahahaha. Picking a team is so much easier if Paul Ruggeri doesn’t do well (there are only so many NO ME GUSTA pommel horse routines you can put on one team), but if he continues TFing on vault, floor, and high bar, how do you say no to that?

Even that isn’t definitive for Ruggeri, however, because he does have a couple completely unusable events, which make it difficult to shoehorn him onto teams without creating serious gaps. That often leaves Ruggeri as the easiest choice to drop among the major contenders, as he has been so many times in the past.

Unlike other contenders with some wiggle room, Ruggeri must continue placing in the top three on vault, floor, and high bar to force his way onto the team. He cannot afford even a tiny blip on those events because the committee will be looking for any excuse to once again exercise the Paulie Exclusion Principle (sciencenerd and gymnerd joke simultaneously!) to make the decision way less complicated for them.

4. The Chris Brooks hair renaissance

Obviously, Chris Brooks’ decision to fix his hair is the reason he did so well on parallel bars at nationals. 1+1=2, people. It wasn’t flopping around like a ferret in a windstorm anymore, so he was able to get a 15.800. Apparently, he learned a lot about himself from that time we put him in hair detention.

Even more important than his AA placement, continuing to get big scores on PBars at Trials would set Chris Brooks apart from…really everyone. If he and Ruggeri end up fighting for one spot (say, on a Mikulak, Dalton, Whittenburg, Naddour team), PBars is Brooks’ asset that Ruggeri cannot match, just as floor and vault are Ruggeri’s. Which argument will be more compelling at Trials?

5. Alex Naddour, specialist or not?

Naddour+pommel horse. We know. His place on the team will probably be determined by whether he hits 15.5 twice at Trials, but pommel horse can be such a craps shoot that two horse routines at Trials don’t provide enough of a sample size to tell us anything about a gymnast’s true likelihood to hit at the Olympics.

I’m less interested in Naddour’s pommel horse than I am in his other events, which are the most critical in determining his usefulness to the team. If he’s just a horse routine, is that worth taking to the Olympics when his fellow contenders have two or three less-dangerous events on which to make up a margin that Naddour only might add on pommel horse?

I have to think Naddour needs to get at least one more top-three finish on another event to make an unimpeachable case. In addition to his rings (which can be quite important in certain teams, though the US does have multiple 15+ options on rings), he’ll need to score close enough to the Dalton/Whittenburg/Ruggeri trio on vault and floor to make at least one member of that trio seem redundant.

6. Bronxy Bronxington on PH and HB

There is a somewhat legitimate argument to be made for the well-rounded competitiveness of a Mikulak, Dalton, Whittenburg, Naddour, Orozco team. In theory, that seemed a very compelling five, especially before Brooks and Ruggeri smashed things up at nationals and Orozco finished 10th. Now, less so. That group is extremely dependent on Orozco being a useful score on both pommel horse and high bar at the same time (ahahahahahaha), but that’s exactly what he did on day 2 of nationals.

If Orozco arrives at Trials able to score a couple more 15.5s on high bar and 15.0s on pommel horse, this team option may reenter the consciousness. (Or Mikulak, Dalton, Brooks, Naddour, Orozco, which is weaker on rings but much better on high bar.)

7. End of the road for Danell?

Nationals…did not go super great for Leyva. Even on his better day on his better events, he scored 15.300 on PBars and HBar, which is a solid and usable score, but not an OMG TAKE ME NOW score. His strengths are still areas where the US needs help, and based on talent level he should have the same status as Mikulak, but he is way, way down the food chain now following that 16th-place abomination. The one thing that can save Leyva is if 2011-2012 Danell swaps places with him and suddenly shows up at Trials, particularly with PBars and HBar routines that don’t look less appealing that Chris Brooks’, which they currently do.

8. Jake Dalton’s PBars

Um, stop getting 14s. That’s the one area where we still need to see Dalton step back up. He should be on the team regardless, but if his PBars starts to look just a little more realistically TF-worthy, that could solve a lot of problems for me in coming up with teams. And that’s what it’s all about anyway.

9. Akash Modi: A person?

Let’s hope so. He’s on the outside of the group looking in, but in certain lights, his horse and PBars look quite attractive. If you’re a fan of making this as complicated as possible (which you really should be) a Modi top-three on those two events just provides an extra little wrinkle and expands the base of nominees.

10. Mikulak on all the things?

Of somewhat lesser, though still notable concern, is the nasty predicament of a number of the vaguely realistic team options requiring Sam Mikulak to do all six events in the team final, which is not ideal. My confidence in Mikulak hitting all six pieces in qualification, then the team final, then the all-around is currently at 0%.

TF options that don’t rely too, too heavily on Mikulak are something to keep in mind, whether he can sit out floor and vault (on perhaps a Dalton, Whittenburg, Ruggeri team), or sit out rings (on perhaps a Dalton, Whittenburg, Naddour team), or sit out high bar (on perhaps a Brooks, Ruggeri, Leyva team…I kid because I love). Some opportunity to spell him in the team final would be nice.

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