LONDON - Before the Opening Ceremony, the members of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team were all dressed up with no place to go.
Although they put on their marching clothes and posed for pictures in the Olympic Village, they watched the festivities on TV to save their energy for the start of team competition Saturday.
Good move, because now Team USA could be going straight to the top.
While advancing to the team final on Monday night with the highest score in the qualification round, the five male gymnasts also positioned themselves well for individual honors at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Led by Danell Leyva of Miami, who qualified first for the all-around competition (91.265 points), the U.S. posted a team total of 275.342 points. Russia (272.595), Great Britain (272.420) and Germany (270.888) were next, followed by Japan and defending Olympic champion China, considered the top U.S. rivals. Scores from the three sessions of qualifying do not carry forward to the finals.
“We don’t want to show everything we’ve got,” Leyva said, “because otherwise team finals wouldn’t be that fun.”
The United States is aiming to upgrade from the bronze medal it earned in Beijing and win its first team gold since 1984.
“Maybe,” said John Orozco of the Bronx, who was fourth in all-around qualifying (90.597). “If we do what we did today, I think we can do really well in team finals.”
In individual event qualifying, Leyva and Jonathan Horton (Houston) made it into the final in horizontal bar, with Jake Dalton (Reno, Nev.) in the floor exercise final and Sam Mikulak (Newport Coast, Calif.) in vault.
With Horton, a 2008 Olympic silver and bronze medalist, the only team member carrying Games experience, Team USA entered North Greenwich Arena with some jitters.
“It’s like once you walk into the arena and see the crowd, it’s pretty mind-blowing,” Mikulak said. “Your heart starts racing, you get butterflies and start breathing fast.”
Added Orozco, “First day and all the nerves are everywhere in the air, so considering that, I think we did really good as a team.”
The United States had the highest team scores for horizontal bar, the fifth rotation, followed by floor exercise.
“Four rookies on the team and they handled it like veterans,” said U.S. coach Kevin Mazeika.
And the veteran came through, too. Horton “had a rough go on pommels and parallel bars, but when his team needed him, he stepped up and hit an amazing high bar routine,” Mazeika said. “That’s Jon Horton.”
Horton, who earned the silver medal in the event in Beijing, displayed incredible release moves to score 15.566.
“Personally, I needed to boost my confidence a little bit.” Horton said. “I made a big mistake on P bars, which I don’t normally make, and I was a little frustrated by it.
“But what’s great about this is it’s a team event. It’s not about my individual performance; it’s what can I do on the next event to help out the team to the best of my ability?”
Horton said he puts too much pressure on himself, and that’s why he made some mistakes.
“The first time around, it was just me doing what I love to do, and now I think I’m taking it a little too seriously,” he said. “I need to just have some fun and soak it all in. This is the Olympic Games. This is what I live for.”
It's what his four younger teammates strived for as well. Orozco said he thought, “Wow, I’m really here with all the Olympians competing,” but he tried to keep an even keel, even with a miscue on parallel bars that cost him.
“Like with any big competitions, I just think to myself, ‘You know what, I’ve done all I can already by preparing in the gym and all these years and all these practices, so I can’t be freaking out now. This is a point where I have to do it.' "
One of the Americans’ top rivals for the all-around title did not have a good outing. Kohei Uchimura of Japan, the three-time defending world champion, fell on the horizontal bar and pommel horse and had the ninth-best score, 89.764.
“We didn’t have the perfect day, but at the same time, neither did China or Japan, which are the teams that we’ve been looking at the most,” Leyva said. “I know for a fact they’re going to come back super strong just like we’re going to come back super strong.”
The top team score carried its perks. “It means we start on floor,” Mazeika said. “It all starts over on Monday, and that’s what I told the guys, too. It was a great day. Day 1 down and look at the things you need to correct and the things you did right and want to do again.”
“The only thing I’m going to take away from this is maybe get some more honey on my hands so I don’t slip on P bars,” Orozco said.
Mazeika said Leyva and Orozco continue to show “tremendous consistency,” which Team USA will need Monday.
In the team final, only three gymnasts compete on each event (compared to four in the prelims) and all three scores count.
“It’s a little more nerve-wracking,” Dalton said. “Everybody has to hit, but we’re a team and we’re here to back each other up. We’re all about team. We’re all fired up, ready to go."
Karen Rosen a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.