The U.S. men’s gymnastics team trials for the 2016 Olympic Games will be held Thursday through Saturday in St. Louis, Missouri. Top contenders, including Sam Mikulak and 2012 individual all-around Olympic bronze medalist Danell Leyva, will vie for one of eight coveted spots on the American squad, consisting of five team members and three alternates.
PEOPLE sat down with these elite gymnasts to talk strategy, strength and songs (check out their taste in music!) as the young men head into the most important competition leading up to Rio. The athletes that make the team will face Olympic frontrunners China, Japan and Great Britain at the Games in August.
Say hello to some of the 2016 Rio male gymnast hopefuls – and be sure to tune into Thursday’s trials, which can be streamed on nbcolympics.com, to cheer them on!
SAM MIKULAK, 23
“My expectations in Rio are to come out with gold. We don’t just want to be on the medal stand. That’s a good feeling, but it’s not our mentality – we want to be a gold medal team. Like we’ll say [to each other], ‘Listen dude, you suck at this, you need to get better at this and I don’t care if I hurt your feelings. I hope you aren’t upset, but you’re going to take the time to make it better.’ Everyone has taken that to heart, and we are nailing routines. Our team camaraderie is incredible.”
Emoji that best describes you: The winky one. I just want it to be like a serious, ‘Hah! I’m just joking with you.’
Favorite artist: I listen to music that doesn’t have words. I love Kygo – he’s tropical house and that’s my stuff!
Boxers or briefs?: Briefs, because boxers are just like another pair of shorts.
JOHN OROZCO, 23
“My mantra is ‘I didn’t come this far to only come this far.’ When I hurt my Achilles last year I thought it was a sign that gymnastics wasn’t going to work for me anymore. But now I’m training for the Olympics and I’m going to do everything I can to get better. Shortly after getting hurt and being sad and throwing a pity party for myself, I just thought you have to pick yourself up however you can and tell yourself, ‘These are the cards you were dealt with and you have to make the best of your situation.”
Key to success: Not thinking about anything before I do something.
Favorite song lyric: “‘Work, work, work, work, work, work,’ ” by Rihanna. Did I get the number of works right?
What 3 items would we find in your gym bag right now?: A stuffed animal blue dinosaur named “dino-mite” that my mom gave me, a rosary and – my hope! Something intangible.
CHRIS BROOKS, 29
“A lot of heart is the key to success. Everybody works hard at this level, everyone is talented. But my heart and my desire is like a secret weapon.”
Boxers or briefs?: Trunk briefs! It’s like a brief and boxer mix.
Rap or country music?: Rap! Anything Machine Gun Kelly, Wiz Khalifa or Mac Miller.
How many meals do you eat a day?: Six smaller ones. I focus on carbs and proteins.
DONNELL WHITTENBURG, 21
“[My strength] is kind of like genetics for me. Well, I’d say it’s half work, half genetics. We don’t use weights – gymnastics has a way of making your body physically fit so it just depends on the way that you work out and the way that you train. You gain muscle in the spots you need it the most! I hear it all the time that I look like an NFL running back. I’m just like, ‘Okay, I guess I do.’ If I played football, I probably would have been a running back. I used to go to practices at my high school, but nothing really serious.”
Strongest event: Definitely vault, you need the leg speed to run and arms to get off the table.
Key to success: Stay motivated and never give up on anything you put your mind to.
Boxers or briefs?: Boxers just feel more free.
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PAUL RUGGERI III, 27
“You shouldn’t be too heavy when you do gymnastics. You want to be powerful and flexible. If you get bulk, you lose flexibility. So if I get bulky, it gets harder for me to put my hands behind my back. Three weeks before a competition I abide by a strict diet.”
Calories consumed in a day: 2,400.
Number of tattoos: 7.
Dream job: I have a degree in molecular and cellular biology and just got my MBA in finance. Now I’m applying to accelerated nursing programs. I’m all over the place. My ultimate goal is to be a nurse practitioner.
JAKE DALTON, 24
“My wife is definitely my biggest supporter she was also a gymnast in college, so she understands my schedule. I tell her all the time that I feel like she’s missing out on certain things like when we can’t go out to dinner and I’m constantly traveling You have your sacrifices for your ultimate goal, though. I’m hoping she can come to Rio! We’re putting down a deposit, so hopefully I make the team.”
Calories consumed in a day : Anywhere from 1,900 to 2,500.
Hashtag go-to: #DaltonsRidetoRio of course! I’m promoting that on Instagram right now.
Favorite song lyric: “Headstrong, I’ll take you on!” It’s motivating, intense rock.
ALEX NADDOUR, 25
“My favorite [gymnastics] memory was in 2014 at World Championships, we had a really good team and we really meshed together. We realized we cared more about each other than the sport. I have good friends [in gymnastics], we’ve been to each other’s weddings, we’ve grown up together. Jake [Dalton] and I have been friends since we were 7, growing up as little juniors doing regionals together and then junior nationals and senior nationals. Now we are both married It’s crazy. And I’m a dad too!”
Inspiration: My baby daughter, she’s awesome. I could have a horrible day in the gym and I come home and she’s so cute!
What 3 items would we find in your gym bag right now?: Grips, a good luck note from my wife and a lucky coin.
Secret Weapon?: My teammates.
STEVEN LEGENDRE, 27
“I work hard, I don’t just do it for myself, but the people around me. I use help from others when they’re willing to work for it. Because that’s vital. Work hard and be committed to what you do.”
Boxers or briefs?: Briefs, because I’m in the gym all the tiem and they are a better support for gymnastics.
Go-to emoji?: I’m really bad with phones! I don’t use emojis, so I guess just a smiley face?
Pump up jam?: “Kind of Crazy” by Brantley Gilbert.
DANELL LEYVA, 24
“My performance in London made me realize in retrospect what kind of mentality I had going in. It had a lot to do with my age: I was only 20 then and I had that young arrogance, so it was like going out and showing what I had. I was trying to prove to people something and then I realized I don’t have to prove to anybody what I already am. That helped and now I’m doing more of what I was doing back then, but with more maturity. I don’t just want to make the team, I want to win the Rio Olympics.”
Favorite food: My grandmother’s bistec empanizado, it’s super good. I’m always hungry.
Any good luck charms?: My girlfriend gave me a stuffed animal to keep with me and watch over me!
How will Rio be different from the London?: I feel a lot stronger and confident in myself.
To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Rio Olympics begin August 5.