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What to watch at USA Gymnastics National Championships men’s competition

Aug 15, 2013, 3:53 PM EDT

Danell Leyva AP

HARTFORD, Conn. — The men’s gymnastics team that walked into the O2 Arena for the 2012 Olympics was arguably the best team the U.S. had fielded at a Games since 1984, the last time it had won gold. Expectations were high, and for the first time since ’84, a gold medal was a legitimate hope.

The U.S., atop the leaderboard after qualifying, stumbled to fifth in the team final.

There’s no way around it for Danell LeyvaJohn OrozcoJonathan HortonSam Mikulak and Jake Dalton. London was a disappointment. The U.S. men left with one medal overall, Leyva’s all-around bronze.

So it comes as no surprise that they’re all back for another Olympic cycle. Orozco, Leyva, Dalton and Mikulak are competing at the National Championships beginning Friday (8 p.m. Eastern time, NBC Sports Network and online here) and concluding Sunday (1 p.m. ET, NBC and online here).

Horton, 27, the only two-time Olympian from that group, is not ready to return competitively from shoulder surgery but is training for 2014.

Comebacks in gymnastics are not generally met with ease, but the men from 2012 have one major factor on their side: age. All but Horton are younger than 22, in a sport where men tend to peak in early-to-mid 20s.

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The Olympians are at nationals hoping to earn spots on the six-man squad for the World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, Sept. 30-Oct. 6, where there will only be individual events, no team title.

Podium training for the men Wednesday was business as usual: camaraderie, high-flying skills and fresh Olympic rings tattoos. but there were also key takeaways, new gymnasts to watch and a preview of who will star this weekend.

This year has marked a breakout for Dalton, who took the American Cup title over Levya in March. He looked solid in training and ready to take aim at his first national all-around title. Barring major mistakes, it will be the others all chasing Dalton.

Levya and Orozco have been the most visible Americans the last few years, on and off the mats. Leyva, profiled by mainstream magazines such as GQ and Men’s Fitness is the 2011 U.S. champion with a trademark towel and boisterous stepfather. Orozco, the Bronx, N.Y., native who starred in the Gym Class Heroes music video for “The Fighter,” is the defending U.S. champion.

They’ve also got international clout with judges. Leyva is the reigning world champion on parallel bars, and Orozco was fifth in the all-around at the 2011 World Championships. Leyva is already looking ahead to Antwerp.

“I want to keep the p-bars title and win the all-around title and make finals on other events that people haven’t seen me make finals on before,” he said.

So far this year, things haven’t gone Leyva’s way. He wasn’t feeling well at the American Cup and finished sixth. He remains among the most talented, but podium training in Hartford wasn’t his best showing. Not surprising for the Cuban-born Floridian, who tends to bring it in high-pressure situations.

Orozco had his own frustrations since the Olympics and will not compete on all six events (no vault or floor exercise). After climbing back from a devastating Achilles injury to take the national title last year, he tore an ACL during the a post-Games tour. He’s once again on the comeback trail, but he doesn’t seem phased, nor is he worried about not being 100 percent.

“It’s a whole new competition and it’s a whole new year and my circumstances are a little different than usual, so I think that this championships will be really interesting,” he said. “So, I’m gonna take it slow and try to focus on the things that I can control.”

Sporting an American flag patterned knee brace, Orozco made it through training looking calm, unphased and on track to be at full strength soon. He’s not necessarily focused on the World Championships but the next three years leading to the Rio Games.

This could also prove to be a breakout year for Mikulak of the University of Michigan, the surprise member of the 2012 Olympic team. He turned in some seriously aggressive routines during training. When he landed his parallel bars routine with a gigantic stuck cold double pike dismount, you could hear his feet hitting the mat throughout the arena. He’s ready.

Keep an eye on Josh Dixon, 23, who boasts one of the highest start values on high bar, as well as clean lines and good form. He’s now more experienced after placing sixth in the event at Olympic trials.

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