There is no other way to say it. The U.S. men's gymnastics team arrived Monday at the Olympic team finals with a legitimate chance at gold and simply choked it away.
They fell three times. They were the No. 1 team after qualifying but finished a lowly fifth. They went from hope to heartbreak, from challengers to afterthoughts, because they were particularly susceptible to the grinding pressure that bears down on every Olympian.
Even they knew it.
"It was definitely just a bunch of nerves," said Sam Mikulak, whose struggle on the opening floor exercise set the tone for a dispiriting day. "We're all so young. This is something we've never experienced before, and this is as much pressure as it'll ever get."
And it was. On the way to finishing fifth with a score of 269.952 -- a full six points behind gold-medal winner China, two behind silver-medal winners Japan and 1.759 behind bronze-winners Great Britain -- the Americans stumbled, fell, cowered and failed.
Mikulak fell in that opening routine on the floor exercise, pulling a brutal score of 14.6.
"We walked out there and I felt very nervous on floor, and that's definitely something I've never experienced before in my life," he said. "It was a great routine, and I got a little too amped up and went for that routine and just pulled it up a little short."
On and on it went, with each Olympian looking hesitant and afraid. The aggression from two days ago -- the graceful confidence that had spurred on powerful, attacking routines -- vanished.
On the next rotation, the pommel horse, Danell Leyva fell. His resulting 13.4 was gasp-inducing for anyone still dreaming of American gold. It could not be worse, or so it seemed, until John Orozco answered with a 12.733 despite not falling, a score so low it essentially ended the Americans' hopes for gold after just two of six rotations. When Orozco fell on the vault two rotations later, even medaling seemed a fantasy. And it was, gone with a flicker.
Gold had been the dream, the goal. But the pressure to capture it, to earn it here under the halcyon lights of an Olympic Games, turned the day nightmarish so fast the three-hour event became two hours, 55 minutes of mounting letdown.
"Yeah, that was some pressure," Orozco said afterward. "But all we try to do is get through it and do our best, and that's all we can do."
This week was supposed to be -- or at least come close to being -- an American triumph in gymnastics. The men and women both claimed the best scores in qualifying over the weekend, and the women in particular are deep, poised and heavily favored for team gold. Had the men risen to the same level of excellence they'd displayed at qualifying, London 2012 could have been the moment America achieved something it never had in the sport.
Instead, under such hope and possibility, they crumbled.
"It just wasn't our day today," said Jake Dalton, who was excellent in two events, the vault and floor. "It wasn't our moment."
Added USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny: "Little mistakes become big mistakes at the Olympic games, and they're really hard to overcome when you have all these great teams.
Penny was right. As the event drew to a close, the men, too far behind for it to still matter, rallied. They were fighters if not winners, and in the end they comported themselves with a steely resolve to finish the way they should have started: as if they belonged among the best.
Flirting with a possible last-place or seventh-place finish, the men put up a very respectable 45.765 on the parallel bars with Mikulak, Orozco and Leyva putting aside their own awful earlier performances. Then the men went to the high bar and fought their way to a fifth-place finish with grace and toughness.
Nothing erased the fact they had failed, miserably, to live up to their potential and opportunity. But they had not failed with their heads down, or their spirits broken. That, at least, is something.
That, certainly, is Olympian.
It's why Horton pulled them aside and told them to keep fighting with that high-bar event still to go.
"I told them, 'Medal or no medal, we're going to fight until the last guy lands his dismount,'" Horton said. "And that's what we did. We hit three great high-bar routines. There was nothing else that we could do. That was it.
"I think we showed our heart at that moment. It's an emotional time to walk away from the Olympics not doing what we want to do, but I wanted to remind the guys: One more event to go. Fight to the very end."
So they fought through the failure, and afterward most faced up to the fact that the pressure did them in. And they promised, one after another, to take Monday's pain and turn it into fuel for the individual events to come this week, into fuel for every single day that follows until America gets another shot at Olympic gold.
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