SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The sound stunned Fred Richard. The energy too.
Walking into the arena for the men’s gymnastics competition at the World University Games in Chengu, China, earlier this month, the 19-year-old Richard wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
“It’s filled with people filled to the brink,” said Richard, a sophomore at Michigan and the reigning men’s NCAA all-around champion. “So it’s like 10,000 people plus and they’re all cheering.”
The scene when Richard and the rest of the top American men took the floor for the opening night of the U.S. Championships at the SAP Center on Thursday night told a different story. When the national anthem played, the number of people on the competition floor rivaled the number of people scattered about the lower concourse.
And though the stands filled in somewhat while Richard, Asher Hong and Yul Moldauer spent 2 1/2 hours jockeying for the lead heading into Saturday night’s finals, it made Richard’s observations during those giddy few days in China all the more telling.
“It makes you wonder, how are they filling the stadiums up for men’s gymnastics and what are we doing wrong in the U.S.?” he said.
While the women’s national team has long been one of the darlings of the U.S. Olympic movement, the men have been fighting an uphill battle. The Americans haven’t won a team medal in a major international event since earning bronze at the 2014 world championships.
There are pockets of individual success. Stephen Nedoroscik won gold on the pommel horse at the 2021 world championships. Brody Malone did the same on the high bar at worlds in Liverpool last fall. In the team finals however, a nightmarish set on pommels sent the Americans tumbling to fifth. And that was at a meet that didn’t include reigning Olympic champion Russia.
Two years ago at the Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. finished fifth in the team final despite avoiding major mistakes. The problem? The routines the Americans were doing weren’t packed with the difficulty required to give them a realistic shot at the podium.
“All things considered, we had a near-perfect performance at the Olympics,” 2021 Olympian Shane Wiskus said. “And to come in fifth place was just kind of like a slap in the face.”
USA Gymnastics instituted a scoring program designed to give the men “bonus” points at domestic meets for attempting harder skills, giving them some wiggle room if their execution of those skills is off a little bit. The bonuses — which aren’t available at international meets — have been halved in 2023 and will be cut again ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics.
While the initial results have lagged, high-performance director Brett McClure believes there has been a shift in mindset. Hong and Richard, for example, have put together elite routines whose start values rank among the top 10 in the world.
Yes, the fifth-place finish at worlds last year was disappointing. The way the Americans got there was not. Their collective start values were high enough that the U.S. could have finished in the top three if routines were done more cleanly.
“We lost third place (at worlds), which is where we would rather be at this point in the game, which means we’re getting experience with the higher difficulty now and we’re building the confidence,” McClure said. “Hopefully the execution is going to get better and then we’re really in a position where we have a chance.”
NCAA men’s gymnastics, long the main feeder program to the Olympic team, also is fighting for its survival. While there are over 12,000 men and boys registered in USA Gymnastics, high school gymnastics has basically vanished.
Still, McClure remains optimistic. He points to the size of the field at the U.S. Classic earlier this month as proof interest in the sport isn’t as dire as it might look from the outside. Over 150 men registered, triple the number that typically signs up. The uptick led USA Gymnastics to add an extra day to the event.
That shift, however, came at a price. The meet was held at the same time as the World University Games. USA Gymnastics had pledged to cover all the expenses of the men selected to travel to China. Instead, some of the money initially allotted went to handle the additional operational costs of keeping the arena outside Chicago open for that extra day.
That left the athletes scrambling to find money for airfare that ran into the thousands of dollars. Some were able to have the universities they represent reimburse them. Others, like Richard, had to dip into their pockets for the chance to go against the best gymnasts in the world.
That glimpse offered Richard a study in contrast between how gymnastics is perceived and supported in the U.S. compared to the countries it is trying to catch.
Japan, China and Russia all devote massive resources — both in terms of bodies and economic support — to their programs. Their champions become national heroes. Their success on the Olympic stage is a point of pride.
It’s not exactly that way in America. While the college programs keep the pipeline in the U.S. relatively full, staying in the sport after graduation takes sacrifice. There is a modest amount of money allotted to members of the men’s national team, just not enough to keep some athletes from searching for other ways to supplement their income to stick around.
Wiskus knows he’s one of the lucky ones. He trains out of EVO Gymnastics in Bradenton, Florida, a club that has pumped significant resources into its men’s program hoping to attract the top talent and coaches in the country. He can make his rent payment and train without needing to look for additional work.
Yet money is never far from the minds of most of the men still competing in their mid-20s, considered the athletic prime for a male gymnast.
Wiskus, 24, didn’t stick around to get rich. Getting by is enough, at least for now. He believes in the culture that’s been built and has no idea when he might retire. The 2028 Games in Los Angeles are just five years away.
Maybe by then, the changes being implemented will bear fruit. There are lots of theories on what it might take for the men’s program to step out of the shadows.
Ultimately Wiskus believes the easiest answer is the same answer it’s always been: having success when the world — the folks back home in particular — is watching.
“It’s very black and white,” he said. “If you start winning, you’re going to get more attention. That’s it.”