Raise your hand if you expected Chris Brooks to win the 2014 U.S. Men's Winter Cup Challenge, also known as Winter Nationals, last night in Las Vegas.
In one of the more unexpected turns in U.S. gymnastics in the past several years, that's exactly what Brooks, the very talented, oft-injured, rather unlucky 2012 Olympic alternate did. The 27-year-old from Houston scored an impressive 89.05 on the second day of the two-day competition to beat 2012 Junior National champion Donnell Whittenburg and the talented Sean Melton, neither of whom scored higher than 87.15 on either night.
Brooks's re-rise (he won the 2010 Winter Cup as well, which led to his only American Cup appearance and a spot on the 2010 World team) is the most surprising storyline so far of the very young gymnastics season. By climbing from fifth after the first night of competition at Winter Cup to winning the meet, he iced a mix of old U.S. rivals and members of the new generation, which two years before the Rio Olympics is beginning to make its presence felt.
Eighteen-year-old Marvin Kimble, an explosive and dynamic young gymnast who many regard as the future of the U.S. program, led the men after the first night of competition. Though he improved on parallel bars and high bar on night two, a lower score on floor and modest numbers on pommel horse dropped the reigning Junior National champion to fifth in the senior meet.
Some of Brooks's biggest rivals chose not to do Vegas this year. Reigning U.S. champion Sam Mikulak remained in Michigan preparing for the American Cup. Jake Dalton, Brandon Wynn and Steven Legendre, all medalists at the 2013 World Championships, showed up to do only one event (strangely, all three opted to perform on rings, which makes sense for Wynn but not for the other two.) John Orozco, who will compete at next week's American Cup, did compete all six events, but struggled mightily on pommel horse and parallel bars in Vegas and counted a fall on floor exercise on an intriguing new skill, which looks like a Lou Yun with a half twist (split-legged full twisting double layout half out). He finished sixth overall.
Brooks has always been considered one of the most daring gymnasts on the U.S. National Team (remember when he did a handspring front double pike at the U.S. Championships in 2012?) But over the years, Brooks has paid for his daredevil stunts with injury after injury, which has limited his training and occasionally kept him out of important competitions. His best international finish was winning the men's all-around at the 2012 Pacific Rim Championships, three months before the Olympic Trials, where he finished tied for fourth all-around with Dalton. Dalton was chosen for the Olympic team. Brooks was the odd man out.
Of the remaining 2012 Olympians, Jonathan Horton, who like Brooks has not been seen in major competition since 2012, petitioned onto the national team. Danell Leyva, the reigning Olympic all-around bronze medalist, did not look much improved from last year's U.S. Championships, where he finished seventh overall and withdrew himself from the World team. In Vegas, Leyva missed routines on pommel horse and scored modestly on rings, which has never been his best event, and also looked far weaker on high bar than he has in the past. He finished ninth overall.
Related: Full results from men's Winter Cup