At Athens 2004, the U.S. men's gymnastics squad had a breakthrough: a team silver medal. It was the first time the U.S. men had made it to the podium since taking gold 20 years earlier at Los Angeles 1984.
Four years later in Beijing, they won a thrilling bronze medal, highlighted by a high-flying rotation on the horizontal bar.
But then, two Olympic Games in a row at London 2012 and Rio 2016, the Team USA men were in medal position after qualifying. And in both, they finished fifth in the medal round.
With Tokyo 2020 approaching in 2021, High Performance Director Brett McClure - a member of that breakthrough Athens team - says they’re aiming for a medal once again.
“To be on that podium is always the goal,” McClure, who also helped the U.S. to silver medals at the Worlds in 2001 and 2003, told Olympic Channel. “[The goal is] to represent your country and earn a medal, and that's really what our goal will continue to be for years to come regardless of the situation.”
The situation has been difficult, to say the least, with the COVID-19 pandemic having made finding consistent training a challenge for many members of the national team, says McClure. He’s not sure what to expect at the Winter Cup event (26-28 February), where some athletes will be getting their first taste of competition for 12 months.
“It’s extremely difficult to get that assessment,” McClure admitted, “We do national team meetings every two weeks, and that's basically the only way we can have a thumb on a pulse.”
Though USA Gymnastics has yet to release a roster for the event, reigning U.S. champion Sam Mikulak, a 2012 and 2016 Olympian, has already said he’ll sit out after missing training late last year due to exposure to COVID. His absence makes knowing what to expect even murkier, but perhaps opens the door for rising stars like 2017 U.S. champion Yul Moldauer and last year’s runner-up Shane Wiskus.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what Winter Cup does. I'm keeping an open mind when we go in there, knowing that everybody's in different places in their training, trying to keep the expectations pretty low, just kind of use this as a marker to see where everyone is at,” explained McClure. “Then, we can target our resources to try to help those individuals that need to get to that next level and that we provide opportunities for those that are in a great position right now to compete in one way, shape or form, whether it's a virtual or international competition.”
The coronavirus pandemic – and subsequent Olympic postponement – has been tough on veterans like Mikulak, who previously had said he might continue to Paris 2024, but last year said he’d hang up his grips following the Tokyo Games in 2021.
“It's extremely difficult for the older guys,” said McClure. “Mentally, physically, just to have to push another year when they [thought] maybe this was going to be it, so that was really hard for them.”
But it hasn’t been all negative, according to McClure, as younger athletes have stepped up and made good use of extra time.
“The young guys took advantage of the opportunity, if they have the consistent training, to really put in the difficulty, which we know our team is below the standards of the top three countries [Russia, China, and Japan] in the world as far as difficulty,” said McClure.
The mix of positives and negatives has kept McClure optimistic for this team’s prospects in Tokyo, pointing out that the uncertainty isn’t a problem unique to the U.S. team.
“I feel like really it's anybody's ballgame. Maybe we have a better chance of medalling because of the situation. Who knows?” said McClure. “We'll go out there and we will compete and see where the chips fall.
“It’s Team USA, it's always been and we continue to put that at the forefront. We're in this together,” he said later. “That's our number one priority: to get that team medal.”