RIO DE JANIERO — Earlier this week, the members of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team grabbed headlines for asking — no, begging — to be objectified for their incredible physiques. It was the only way, they joked, that they could tumble out of the enormous shadow cast by their female counterparts, the Final Five.
“Maybe [we could] compete with our shirts off,” national champion Sam Mikulak said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “People make fun of us for wearing tights. But if they saw how yoked we are, maybe that would make a difference.”
On Sunday, 25-year-old Alex Naddour found another way to steal attention for the men’s team: by becoming the first American man in 32 years to win an Olympic medal on pommel horse.
“This is exactly what I’ve wanted since I was a young kid, to go out and hit a routine and score the highest I’ve ever scored [in a competition] outside the U.S.,” Naddour said. “And to do it in the Olympic Games, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Naddour’s medal is the first in Rio for the U.S. men’s gymansts, who finished a disappointing fifth in the team competition and off the podium in the all-around. It’s been a recurring theme for the men since London: perform well during qualification, then crack when medals are on the line. Shortly before Naddour’s performance on pommel, he watched teammates Mikulak and Jacob Dalton, who qualified first and second on the floor exercise, make mistake after mistake and fall to sixth and eighth, respectively.
Moments later, the performance of another U.S. teammate, Simone Biles, inspired Naddour to have the confidence to believe he could stick his routine, despite faltering on the apparatus during the team competition. As Naddour began his warm-up, Biles was on the medal stand receiving her record third gold medal of these Games.
Biles soars to vault victory for third gold in Rio
American Simone Biles added a third gold medal to her haul in Rio, easily winning the women’s vault final Sunday afternoon.
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“It was very inspiring,” Naddour said of watching Biles become the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold on vault. “I used that. I heard our national anthem come on, stood up and said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s keep this rolling.’ She started it off today, and I’m starting it off for the rest of the guys who have finals. I believe in them.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. men have three more opportunities to leave Rio with medals. Mikulak and Danell Leyva qualified on high bar, and Leyva qualified on parallel bars. But while the U.S. women have the potential to leave Rio with nine medals and are being lauded as a Dream Team, the overall performance of the men’s program is begging the question, “What next?”
For an answer, they should look the same direction Naddour did for inspiration: to the women. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. women’s gymnastics program has separated itself so far from the rest of the world that the next-best five-woman squad in the world likely could have been comprised of gymnasts the U.S. left at home.
U.S. men’s team coach Mark Williams has said he wants what the women have. He wasn’t talking about their medals as much as their mettle, their unwavering confidence and ability to approach Olympic competition like any other day in the gym. They don’t make excuses, don’t betray injuries and don’t blame one another when something goes wrong.
After winning the all-around final and being asked if she feels pressure, three-time gold medalist Simone Biles said, “No.” When pressed on whether being second after two rotations affected her psyche going into beam, she reiterated her initial answer: “Really, I don’t feel pressure.”
Compare Biles’ response with Jacob Dalton’s comments after he finished eighth on floor on Sunday.
“There’s pressure. In qualifying, you’re thinking about the team, and today is more about you,” Dalton said. “I compete better when I compete for the team. The Olympics is hard.”
That perspective shift is what Williams wishes he could instill in his guys. But it’s not like the women’s recipe is a guarded secret. U.S. team head chef Martha Karolyi will write it down on a white index card for anyone who asks. She’d likely even come to your kitchen and teach you how to properly chop the celery.
Without a doubt, women’s programs around the world have been taking notes. At the 2015 world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, former Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner said he noticed a change in the type of gymnasts he saw representing countries such as Great Britain and China.
“They were stronger, more powerful than in the past,” he said, noting that it was no accident. They were emulating the Americans, who utilize their strength to pack routines full of difficult skills in order to take advantage of the Code of Points.
When will the men’s team follow suit?