RIO DE JANEIRO – Before the U.S. men’s gymnastics team departed for the Olympics, staff athletic trainer Jamie Broz handed captain Chris Brooks a care package.
It included super glue (for two reasons), a fruit-and-nut mix and a sticky pad of 30 inspirational quotes. The quotes, Broz said, were for Brooks to read to the team, one per day, before they leave the Olympic Village for the gymnastics arena.
Broz happened to be passing by the gymnasts’ room early Tuesday when she heard Brooks “shout” the quote.
Then they all stepped into an elevator and embarked for team qualifying on the first day of the Games.
“They love it,” Broz said of the motivational tool. “It kind of gets them out the door.”
So what was Tuesday’s quote?
“I was obviously trying to get into my zone, but it was something about believing,” 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva said. “[Brooks] is the only one who can remember it.”
“I don’t remember,” Brooks said, leading a journalist to wonder if he actually followed Broz’s instructions. “No, I read it.”
Three-time U.S. all-around champion Sam Mikulak had their backs.
“It was something about, you have the ability to make it happen, so go out there and make it happen,” he said. “Really believe in yourself.”
The Americans looked full of self-belief – and stronger than medal favorites Japan and Great Britain – in their first four of six rotations in qualifying on Saturday.
Then they made a mess of pommel horse, as they always seem to do. But they still had the highest qualifying score with the third and final subdivision of teams to go, a group that includes two-time defending Olympic champion China.
The U.S. easily qualified for Monday’s eight-team final in a way that was reminiscent of the 2012 Olympics.
A Rio team medal, which seemed unlikely after a fifth-place finish at the 2015 World Championships, is now a little more realistic. But any optimism must be cautioned.
The U.S. men had the highest qualifying score four years ago – where Japan also struggled – but the Americans plummeted to fifth in the final with pommel horse being the Achilles’ heel.
There is also a lingering wonder that favorites Japan and China may not always show their best gymnastics in qualifying.
In 2012, China was sixth and Japan was fifth in qualifying. Then they went one-two in the final for a second straight Olympics.
“They’re saving themselves for the finals,” U.S. and University of Oklahoma coach Mark Williams said. “From my experience as a college coach, you want to be good the first day [in qualifying], and you want to be better the second day [in the final]. But you don’t want to have to be scrambling to get better the second day. So I feel like we did exactly what we needed to do. We still have some room to improve.”
So, is this year’s U.S. team better equipped to handle this situation than the London group?
“We have more experience, we know what to expect,” said Jake Dalton, one of three Olympic rookies from that 2012 team who are on the five-man Rio squad. “We’re not going to get too hyped up. Last time, I think, it was awesome, we were excited, we went into finals super hyped and then we had mistakes.”
Brooks is without a doubt the most excitable, fist-pumping, chest-beating member of the team (not counting Leyva’s animated father, of course). And he has reason to be. He’s making an Olympic debut at age 29. Nobody else on the team is older than 25.
Even though Dalton is stressing calm, Brooks’ demeanor is what drew Broz to assemble the items in the care package.
“Chris is the team captain, and he’s inspirational to everybody,” she said. “When he was announced team captain, I thought, give them all the tools they need. That’s kind of my job.”
The super glue, distributed not just to Brooks but also to the rest of the team, serves two purposes. Gymnasts actually use it to cover ripped-up skin. Broz also wanted it to symbolize how each of the five is part of a glue that keeps the team together.
Broz has been with USA Gymnastics for nearly 20 years. And this is the first time she has done this with a men’s team.
What makes this one so special? It’s their differences, Broz said.
There are Brooks and Alex Naddour at their first Games after traveling to London in 2012 as alternates.
There are Dalton and Mikulak, two 2012 Olympians who misses the 2015 Worlds due to injuries.
And there’s Leyva, who didn’t make this team outright but was called up after John Orozco tore his left ACL again in July.
“They have that mixture that, if you add all the ingredients in,” Broz said, “they’re going to be something big.”