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Road to Rio was anything but easy for this 'band of brothers'

The 2016 U.S. Olympic men's gymnastics team: Sam Mikulak, Alex Naddour, Jake Dalton, Chris Brooks and John Orozco. AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

ST. LOUIS -- Twelve minutes. As if the suspense and drama of the evening, of the moment itself is not enough, 12 extra minutes of anguish are tacked onto the end of the U.S. Olympic men's gymnastics trials for the selection committee to make its final decision.

"And then they walked into the room and everyone stopped breathing," said Sam Mikulak. "That was a more nerve-wracking moment than any competition we've ever been a part of."

Mikulak was a relatively easy call in a year in which the U.S. men's gymnastics trials were fraught with all the emotion and suspense of an Olympic final, 18 men walking in this past Thursday, seven walking off Saturday night thinking they did everything they had to do to, and only five being told it was enough to represent the U.S. in the Rio Games.

Mikulak. Jake Dalton. Chris Brooks. Alex Naddour. John Orozco.

Each had their own tales of adversity, their moments of doubt. Each had red-rimmed eyes afterward, trying to put their emotions into words.

There was Orozco, the New York native who lost his mother in February 2015, then ruptured his Achilles for the second time four months later. And Brooks, who, at 29, was giving it one last shot with injuries too numerous to count, hoping against hope he would make his first Olympic team after finishing no worse than fifth at every U.S. championship since 2010 and reaching no more than an alternate spot in London in 2012.

There was Dalton, who withdrew from nationals last year with a shoulder injury and failed to make the world championship team. And Mikulak, who went into the London Games with a bad ankle and was still recovering this spring from a partially torn Achilles and surgery on his ankle last fall.

And then, Naddour, another 2012 alternate who pointed to his wife and their four-month-old daughter in the crowd after each event Saturday night. His wife Hollie is a former two-time world championship gold medalist who just missed making the 2004 Olympic gymnastics team and laundered his uniform in baby detergent so he could take in their daughter's scent as he walked out Saturday.

"I mean, I keep trying to shake myself," Naddour said. "Am I awake? Is this real? This is just how I imagined it would go and I'm beyond happy."

So was Mikulak.

"I'm super happy to have made the team, but I think I'm happier for all the other guys who made it as well because I think they went through a lot more emotionally than I did and they handled it so well," Mikulak said.

The formula that got them there -- a combination of scores from national championships and trials, an equation that factored in the best possibility for a team method -- was methodical and unforgiving and ended with a group whose intestinal fortitude might be its biggest strength.

"They've all gone through so much to get to this point," said Kevin Mazeika, the senior national team coordinator. "They all have a story, the injuries and surgeries and everything it took to get to this point. They're bound by that common struggle. They're going to be a very strong band of brothers."

For now, however, they are simply an emotional one.

"If you can hear me Mom, I love you," Orozco sobbed into the NBC cameras after the selection announcement, then apologized to reporters for not being able to adequately put his thoughts together.

"You wake up this morning and you're thinking, 'This is my last day to prove myself, to show my worth,' and here I am," he said.

Brooks laughed when asked if he was ever close to calling it quits after 2012.

"Oh yeah, all the time," he said. "Every time a new injury came up I was like, 'Man, can I even keep going? Can I even make it to 2016?' But just put your head down and work hard in silence and let your gymnastics show off."

It's the ability to not just tolerate but conquer that pressure that put them in this position. And yet, there were those 12 minutes. And that room.

"I started crying a little bit and I don't even cry," Brooks said. "Ask my friends. But it started coming out. It was an overwhelming sensation of happiness and pride and just love for everybody that has helped me."

"It was the last name they called," Orozco said, "and I thought I was going to stop breathing. I couldn't believe it. My heart was racing."

"It's intense, not just for the athletes, but it's intense for the coaching staff, selection committee, everyone," Naddour said. "They're emotional, as well, because they know how hard everyone has worked to get to this point. There are a lot of good guys, a lot of hard work and dedication [from] guys who didn't make this team. And it's hard. It's hard. I've been there and I hope they select some really good alternates and they train just as hard as I did when I was an alternate because you never know what can happen out there."

Among the "replacement athletes," as USA Gymnastics calls them, are 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva and Donnell Whittenburg, a former world and national medalist.

"A lot of us are really strong-minded," Naddour said. "You have to be mentally strong in this sport to get only one chance every four years to make the team and only five guys get to call themselves Olympians. It's the most difficult thing I've ever been through emotionally."

Naddour knew how the others felt because he has been there.

"I've been in that room before and I remember looking at the ground thinking, 'How can I make this team?' and there's no name, there's nothing," he said. "And then the team is named and the alternates, and I'm thinking, "It's not over yet, I'll keep training.'

"For me, that's all I was thinking about. I did my job ... so I felt fairly confident going into that room afterward. Still, you want them to say your name. It's not official until they say your name."