US men searching for higher profile as Rio Games near

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Posted: Jun 22, 2016 9:43 PM
US men searching for higher profile as Rio Games near

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The most famous moment of Jake Dalton's gymnastics career didn't come anywhere near a gym.

It came on the beach. Wearing a Speedo. Surrounded by a handful of other members of the U.S. men's team in what can best be described as a sea of six-pack abs. The impromptu selfie, shot in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year, created a mainstream social media splash.

But it generated exactly zero phone calls from sponsors. And that's kind of the problem.

While American women gymnasts who seem to dominate the podium at the Olympics every four years find near instant celebrity the second the "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played during the medal ceremony, the men face a far more anonymous reality.

"We're not poor by any means but we're not LeBron James status, we're not signing lifetime contracts," Dalton said. "It's a lot harder to get sponsorships than any of these big-time guys. We're hoping to change it and trying to change it."

Don't get Dalton wrong, he's not exactly stocking up on Ramen noodles to make ends meet. Yet for the men who will compete in the U.S. Olympic trials starting Thursday night, opportunities to expand their "brand" beyond the mat are often scarce.

Four-time national champion Sam Mikulak helps run a tea import business on the side. Alex Naddour sells real estate. Dalton started his own clothing line.

Coca-Cola and Nike they are not.

Naddour turned professional in 2011. When he called an agent to see what endorsement opportunities there might be, the response he received was polite but direct.

"He basically said 'You make an Olympic team, we'll have you on, until then, nope,'" Naddour said.

Naddour made it, but only as an alternate. He watched from the stands at the 02 Arena as the U.S. slipped to a disappointing fifth in 2012. The phone didn't exactly ring off the hook. It didn't ring at all.

Then again, things were hardly more promising for Danell Leyva, who captured bronze in the all-around in London. Four years later he's still living at home with his mother and stepfather/coach — by choice, he insists — and is at peace with the idea he's not as famous as he thought he'd be by now.

"I think gymnastics is like one of the few areas in this country where women are given the respect and the credit they're due because of the success that they've had," Leyva said. "If we want to be as popular as the women, we need to have the same amount of success."

The gap is daunting.

The U.S. women have stockpiled hardware from all over the world under national team coordinator Martha Karolyi's tenure. The run includes the team gold in 2012 and each of the last three Olympic all-around champions, victories that turned Nastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas into household names and helped set them up for long-term financial success.

The kind no group of American men has been able to find since the 1984 team won the program's Olympic title.

"At the end of the day, bronze medals aren't gold medals," said Chris Brooks, an alternate in 2012 who hopes to make the five-man squad for Rio when it is announced on Saturday night. "At the end of the day, people want to be connected to gold medals. People want to be connected with champions."

It's a path the men's program began addressing 20 years ago when it created its own take on the centralized system long used by international powers like China and Russia.

Men who make the senior national team are paid a modest sum — often with performance bonuses based on results in international competition — and have the option of moving to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they can split a rent-free apartment with a teammate, work intensely with the coaching staff and have their diet strictly overseen.

The ones that choose to live elsewhere have to pay for their coaching, though most coaches do it at a discount to help defray the cost. There's also extra money for those asked to join the 30-city, post-Olympic tour, work that Dalton turned into a down payment on the house he shares with his wife Kayla.

And there are other opportunities outside of cash. Ruggeri took advantage of a program offered by the United States Olympic Committee to get an MBA in finance for free. Steven Legendre enrolled his infant daughter in the Elite Athlete Health Insurance after her birth last fall.

In that way, the 27-year-old Legendre understands he's fortunate. When he started flipping around as a kid, he never envisioned he'd be making a modest living doing it.

Having a family, however, has added a layer of pressure. The men have to re-earn their spot on the national team every six months. Miss out and the financial support goes right along with it.

"There's definitely a little bit of pressure that at a regular 9-to-5 job you're not really feeling," he said.

Pressure that typically doesn't affect the women's program, where most competitors peak in their late teens, with the ones that don't go pro turning their elite success into full college rides.

The ones that do turn professional — like Douglas and three-time reigning world champion and heavy Olympic favorite Simone Biles — hawk everything from soft drinks to shoes.

The men are confident they can earn a piece of that action — albeit a smaller one — if they can reach the top. Or at least get closer.

"If we get that gold medal, you bet ... I want that kind of shine," Mikulak said. "That's really the goal. Get that gold and bring men's gymnastics into the fold."