MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Fred Richard envisioned this long ago. All of it.

The confetti. The flashing lights. The adrenaline rush of hearing his name called as an Olympian.

The charismatic 20-year-old who has made it his life’s mission to make men’s gymnastics relevant in the United States knew reaching the Olympics would be a vital step in the process.

And now it’s here. Emphatically.

Richard will headline the five-man U.S. team that will head to Paris next month with a legitimate chance to medal after winning the Olympic trials on Saturday.

“It’s like a new mountain in my life,” Richard said. “And I’m ready to climb it.”

It certainly looks that way. Richard posted a steady and occasionally spectacular two-day all-around total of 170.500 at trials, just ahead of three-time national champion Brody Malone at 170.300.

Richard, known as “ Frederick Flips ” to his hundreds of thousands of social media followers, has spent years trying to nudge men’s gymnastics toward the spotlight through creative viral videos that often include collaborations with athletes in other sports.

The lights don’t get any brighter than the ones Richard and Olympic teammates Malone, Asher Hong, Paul Juda and Stephen Nedoroscik will compete under at Bercy Arena.

Nine months after earning a bronze at the 2023 world championships — the men’s program’s first at a major international competition in nearly a decade — Richard and the rest of the Americans believe they’re capable of even more this summer.

“It’s like we shouldn’t even be aiming for even just a medal,” said Richard, who also earned a bronze in the all-around at worlds last fall. “We should be aiming for gold and we’re going to land on something.”

The Americans have spent the last three years overhauling their program after finishing well off the podium at the Tokyo Olympics. They revamped their scoring system, offering bonus points at domestic meets for athletes who attempted more challenging skills.

The goal was to close the chasm in overall difficulty that had developed between the U.S. and longtime superpowers China and Japan. When the Americans saluted the judges for their first event in Tokyo they were already six points behind, the difference between the cumulative difficulty of their routines compared to the teams they were chasing.

That gap will be down to two points when the U.S. steps onto the floor during Olympic qualifying on July 27, giving them a legitimate chance to finish on the podium.

“(We are in) a much different position now,” high performance director Brett McClure said. “We’re going to be able to control our own destiny.”

And they’ll do it with the 24-year-old Malone, whose career was nearly derailed by a devastating right knee injury in March 2023. Three surgeries, 15 months and countless hours of physical therapy later, Malone’s knee is not perfect but better. His gymnastics might be, too.

Malone methodically worked his way back from the brink, though the last few weeks have been a blur. He didn’t put together a full floor routine until May, though he hasn’t exactly looked rusty. He cruised to a national title earlier this month and would have topped Richard at trials if not for a sloppy — by his standards — high bar routine on Saturday.

Considering where he was last fall when he watched the men’s program he was supposed to be the standard-bearer for between Tokyo and Paris roll on without him, Malone will more than take it.

“It crept up on me real quick I’m just super grateful for all the medical staff and everyone has helped me get back to this point,” Malone said. “I really couldn’t have done it without them.”

Juda and Hong, members of last year’s world championship team, will join Malone and Richard as the core of what will be a relatively young American team. Nedoroscik is 25. Malone is 24. Juda turns 23 on July 7. Richard and Hong are all of 20.

The quiet and unassuming Juda broke down in tears multiple times in the aftermath while Hong was relieved after a somewhat nightmarish performance at nationals — thanks in part to what he believes was rough treatment by the judges gave him little margin for error heading into trials.

“It was kind of like a battle between me and the judges,” Hong said. “That was kind of the goal. Like, ‘Try and find something (wrong) in this routine, I dare you.’”

Khoi Young and Shane Wiskus will serve as the alternates. Wiskus, a member of the 2020 Olympic team, is retiring at the end of the competition season. The Minnesota native — who left his home state not long after the University of Minnesota cut its men’s program — drank in every ovation in what may have been the last performance of his career.

While Wiskus is stepping away, Richard is poised to move into his prime. He began pointing toward Paris long ago while growing up in the Boston suburbs. Now it’s finally here and he is eager to show that there is plenty of substance underneath all that showmanship.

“I want to be a medalist Olympian, that’s my personality,” he said. “There’s always more to go. And I’m excited to just keep gunning for it.”


AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games