John Orozco, Danell Leyva: U.S. gymnastics team bids for gold Monday

LONDON — They're not nearly the same nobody-gives-them-a-chance type of Olympic underdog.

They've been competitive with their sport's upper echelon on the international stage.

Still, there's something about the young men on this U.S. gymnastics team — something that evokes memories of another band of feisty young Americans who similarly chased their gold-medal dreams in a different sport in a different era in a different kind of Olympics.

Remember Lake Placid?

Remember the winter of 1980?

Remember Herb Brooks and Mike Eruzione and the U.S. hockey team that authored the "Miracle on Ice," arguably the greatest sports story ever told?

That hockey team was filled with better-than-anyone-knew competitors who didn't care what anyone else thought and were unshaken in their belief that, if they played hard and played together, they could beat anyone.

Even the mighty Soviets.

This gymnastics team seems to possess a similar all-for-one, one-for-all, together-we-can-accomplish-anything mentality — a championship quality that was on worldwide display Saturday, when the Americans finished first during in the Olympic qualification round, overcoming a slow start to overtake the favored Japanese and Chinese squads.

It's an admirable attribute that allows the U.S. men, whose swagger appeared to grow with each rotation, to feel confident as they go for the gold in Monday's eight-team finals.

"Now is when everyone is finally, completely realizing how much we believe in it," said U.S. gymnast Danell Leyva, who finished first in the all-around qualifying and will be joined in the finals by teammate John Orozco, who was fourth. "(Saturday's showing) was definite, huge proof of that."

The Americans, who finished third at the 2011 World Championships, won the qualification competition comfortably, ending the prelims more than 2.5 points ahead of Russia and nearly three points in front of the surprising British.

Japan was a distant fifth, immediately followed by China, which has won the past five world titles. Both teams were uncharacteristically mistake-prone Saturday, when three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan fell twice.

So it wasn't surprising to see the U.S. team members hugging and high-fiving and pumping their fists throughout the last two rotations, particularly after rousing performances by Leyva and Jonathan Horton on the high bar, and celebrating together after the competition ended.

This is a group that doesn't try to hide its emotions, or its passion for gymnastics, or its sense of purpose.

The feel-good moment, however, didn't last long: The qualifying scores do not carry over to the finals.

When the Americans return to North Greenwich Arena for Monday's team finals, they'll need to prove themselves again — show the world that what happened Saturday wasn't a fluke.

"We're going to do everything we can to make it finish like that," said American captain Jonathan Horton, the only holdover from the team that won bronze in Beijing in 2008 and, in many ways, the Eruzione of the 2012 squad.

Can the U.S. men finish the job?

Peter Vidmar, for one, thinks so.

The all-around silver medalist on the U.S. team that won gold at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, Vidmar, now the chairman of USA Gymnastics, likes the camaraderie and competitive fire he has seen from this group.

"I think that's huge," Vidmar said. "A lot of people on the outside don't think of gymnastics as a team sport, but it is, especially at this level. It's a team sport based on a combination of individual performances.

"You train together. You compete together. You can't spend all that time together and not start caring about each other. That's the way it was for us in '84. That's the way it looks to be happening with these guys. You can see how much they support each other, how hard they root for each other on the floor, how close they've gotten as a team.

"And let me tell you: When you come to that point where everyone understands and accepts that the team comes first — that you're part of something bigger than yourself — it's a powerful thing."

That's why, perhaps, the team members have been telling everyone for weeks that they were going to London to win.

Not merely medals.

But Olympic gold.

They know all about China's dynastic run. They know Japan arrived in England as the betting favorite. They know what everyone else is saying.

They don't care.

"We're here to get something," Leyva said. "We said we'd be pretty disappointed if we didn't get on that podium."

Preferably, the top level.

Same as those feisty, young Americans at Lake Placid.

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