Sarah Finnegan flies off the vault during practice for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials. Finnegan is one of many Olympic alternates who must stay in shape and prepare as if they were competing in the upcoming Olympics, hoping for a chance to break through in London.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: In preparation for the start of the 2012 Summer Olympics, The Herald will count down the days until the Games begin July 27 in London with at least one preview or feature in each day’s sports section about the athletes and their stories that make the Olympic Games so special. Enjoy!)
Steven Legendre steeled himself for the disappointment of not making the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team. He took solace in being one of three alternates, pledging to prepare relentlessly while knowing he likely wouldn’t get a chance to compete.
“I’m of the mindset that I’m competing, to keep pushing through the training,” Legendre said. “Anything less is unacceptable.”
It’s the right thing to say, even if the reality has proven much more difficult.
Back home in Oklahoma shortly after the Olympic trials earlier this month, Legendre worked out alongside good friend and reigning NCAA champion Jake Dalton, who made the five-man team.
The two had talked at length about what would happen in this situation. They promised to be cool with it, support each other and push each other to the limit.
For Legendre, it hasn’t exactly been easy.
“We’ve had conversations and he actually said to me, ‘I didn’t realize it was going to be as hard as it is,’” said Oklahoma coach Mark Williams, who coaches Legendre and Dalton. “He has to train full out as an alternate. ... I definitely sympathize with him. But he also came to the conclusion that he’s going to have to prove he’s the next guy that goes in if there is an opportunity.”
Such is the life of an alternate.
Legendre, Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour as well as women’s alternates Sarah Finnegan, Anna Li and Elizabeth Price all took the stage in San Jose on July 1 as members of the Olympic team. They donned the red, white and blue warm-ups. They held roses. They waved to fans.
Yet when the lights dimmed, their paths began to diverge.
The women’s alternates will go to England, but not London. They will work out in Birmingham — about two hours northwest of The O2 Arena — while waiting for a call that, in a way, they hope never comes.
The guys will at least be in the city training alongside their teammates, but for the alternates it will surely be a strange sensation if they don’t suit up when men’s qualification begins on July 28.
And while the alternates insist they can handle living on the fringe, the conversation inside their heads can be very different.
“You’re really kidding yourself if you just feel OK with it all,” said Raj Bhavsar, a two-time U.S. men’s team alternate. “You train all those years to be a part of the team to go on the floor and be an Olympian. There’s a lot of unanswered questions that remain with you.”
They certainly remained with Naddour. He felt his dynamic performance on pommel horse during Olympic trials — where he easily posted the best scores in an event the U.S. typically struggles in — earned him a spot over Sam Mikulak. The 19-year-old Mikulak sprained his left ankle during the first night of trials, limiting him to just one event on the final day of competition.
To Naddour, pinning a team’s medal hopes on a balky ankle didn’t make much sense, though Mikulak appears to be progressing nicely at the pre-Olympic camp held this week in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I didn’t think the committee would take the risk, because he’s hurt his ankles before, that they would end up putting Sam on the team and they did,” Naddour said. “So that was kind of a down.”
And made his selection as an alternate “bittersweet.” There’s no right way to handle the disappointment of not making the team.
Then again, Naddour knows it could be worse.
“There were tons of guys that thought they would make at least an alternate and it’s definitely heartbreaking that it didn’t happen for them,” he said.
The U.S. gymnastics program has been promoting the “one team, one goal” mission at length during the last four years. Though they will become two teams — the regulars and the alternates — after they land in England, the coaches are doing what they can to make sure that “team first” mentality stays intact.
“At any point in time they could be added,” U.S. men’s team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said. “If someone goes down, they will step in. It’s an incredibly important role and they all understand it and they’ll be on the ready.”
Look at what happened four years ago. Bhavsar and fellow alternate Sasha Artemev both wound up competing after Paul Hamm and his twin brother, Morgan, were forced out by injuries, Morgan a mere two days before the Olympics began.
Bhavsar was training in Houston in the weeks leading up to the games, conceding in his head Beijing was going to be a repeat of Athens. He was the final cut before the 2004 Games, despite winning still rings at trials and finishing fourth at nationals.
“It crushed me bad,” Bhavsar said. “It took nearly a year for it to settle in.”
He thought he’d done enough in 2008, finishing third in the all-around at nationals and trials. Again his name wasn’t called. Unlike the first time, however, he was prepared for the letdown. Knowing he had just a few weeks left of his gymnastics’ life, Bhavsar put his head down and went to work.
When news of Paul Hamm’s injury began to spread just days before the U.S. team was to head to China, Bhavsar remembers racing to the gym and sprinting to get on the pommel horse, where he was likely to compete.
“I was insane,” Bhavsar said. “I was just at the point where I had accepted this was happening again and things changed.”
Ultimately Bhasvar competed in four events while helping the U.S. to a surprise bronze. His advice to the alternates is simple: Be ready because opportunity is one bad landing away.
And even if it doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth the journey.
“It’s a selfless position,” he said. “Even if they don’t get called, having poured themselves into something like that, that kind of drive is going to be with them for the rest of their lives.”
For the 21-year-old Naddour and 23-year-old Legendre, there’s at least the lure of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. This is likely the last go-round for 25-year-old Brooks. Any other Olympiad, and he’s probably on the team. The move, however, to trim teams from six competitors to five likely cost him a spot.
The ever-optimistic Brooks nods his head when this is mentioned.
“I know,” he says, drawing out the second word as if he’s trying to wring all the angst out of it . “But at the same time, I’m excited for those guys. They earned it.”