TOKYO — Once spectators were banned from Tokyo's Olympic venues, athletes began to wonder how it would affect their experience. Would they miss the energy of the crowd? Would it be uncomfortable, or even dull?
According to the U.S. men's gymnastics team, it's actually kind of nice.
"Honestly, it was pretty chill,'' former Gopher Shane Wiskus said. "It's still the Olympic Games. There's still pressure there. But it just felt like another day in the gym.''
While it might not sound very special, that atmosphere was just what the American men needed — and what they hope to use to their benefit again in Monday's team final. Wiskus and his teammates treated Saturday's qualifying round like a training session or a team camp, aided by the relative quiet of Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
They rode that relaxed atmosphere to fourth place in the qualifier, earning a spot in the eight-team final. Two gymnasts — Brody Malone and Sam Mikulak — advanced to Wednesday's all-around final, and the U.S. secured four places in individual event finals. Mikulak will compete on parallel bars, Malone on high bar, Yul Moldauer on floor exercise and Alec Yoder on pommel horse. Yoder is competing as an individual at the Olympics.
Wiskus, of Spring Park, just missed the floor exercise final. In his Olympic debut, he finished ninth in qualifying with a score of 14.733, his best mark of the night.
Japan, China and Russia took the top three spots in team qualifying, with the Russians more than five points ahead of the Americans. The U.S. cannot match the difficulty of the routines performed by those nations, making it a long shot to earn a medal.
"It would have to be a really flawless competition for us, and a horrible competition for them,'' Mikulak said. "We're just going to hope for the best in ourselves.''
A three-time Olympian, Mikulak has experienced a Summer Games arena overflowing with fans and the anxiety that comes with it. Wiskus, Moldauer and Malone, all first-time Olympians, have made his last Games his most fulfilling.
The foursome entered the Tokyo Games knowing they would have to rely on one another for motivation and friendship, as the pandemic kept family and friends home and forced teams to limit contact with others. As they looked ahead to Monday's team final, all of them talked about how meaningful their Olympics already had been, even though it had barely begun.
"We've been hanging around the hallways, sitting around, joking, being ourselves,'' Mikulak said. "Being out there with these guys was the most fun I've ever had in my Olympic experience.
"I put so much pressure on myself in the previous years. I've just become very grateful for where I'm at. I'm so proud of these guys for being able to step it up for their first Olympics and put on a showing like that.''
The relaxed attitude started the night before the qualifying. With their first competitions coming up, the U.S. gymnastics teams chose not to attend Friday night's Opening Ceremony. They put on their Ralph Lauren ceremony outfits to take some photos outside their accommodations, and an impromptu parade of athletes broke out, with Mikulak as the flagbearer.
Though no fans were allowed in the arena, the U.S. men did have a cheering section. A group from the American delegation — including members of the women's gymnastics team — sat in the bleachers in a corner section and rooted loudly.
That gave all of them a lift, but the most important support came from one another. After Moldauer fell on the team's first routine of the night, coming off the parallel bars, his teammates let him know it was OK. Wiskus followed immediately with a strong routine that scored a 14.700.
On the final rotation, when Wiskus sat down on the landing of his vault, the other three delivered on theirs.
"I just went out there, did my job and had my teammates' back,'' Wiskus said. "We did a really good job staying together as a team, picking each other up if there was a mistake.''
The Americans have earned three medals in Olympic team competition since 1936: gold in 1984, silver in 2004 and bronze in 2008. Wiskus said the U.S. can "absolutely'' score higher in the team final by cleaning up details, such as sticking more dismounts and landings.
As they did Saturday, the Americans will try to make the Olympics feel like another day in the gym.
"We're going to be energized, and we're going to have fun,'' Mikulak said. "We've got such a strong little group here.
"With everything that has happened this year, we're at the Olympics. There's a lot to be proud of in that. And wherever we land, we're just going to be proud of the performances we put out.''