The first step in the Team USA 2012 Olympic qualifying process begins on Thursday with the Winter Cup Challenge and Gymnastike will be on site for coverage!
 
The Winter Cup Challenge is an annual men's National Championships in Las Vegas and one of the two chances per year for guys to qualify to the Senior National Team. It's always in interesting competition in that it happens so early in the year that you never really know what to expect… other than to see guys battling for the elusive 12 - 16 spots on the National Team. 
 
What to watch for? Here are my top 7 storylines for the 2012 Winter Cup Challenge.
 
#7 Olympic STRESS! 
That's right, folks. The 2012 Olympic Games are a quick 175 days away! This is the first step in the Olympic qualification process for the US men and you know they have to be feeling the nerves. This isn't just another Winter Cup, and they know that.
 
#6 Less Pressure on 2011 World Team members 
Members of the 2011 USA bronze medal winning World Championships team will automatically be re-named to the National team regardless of performance this weekend, so most will only be using this meet as a tune up. As a reminder, these guys are: Jonathan Horton, John Orozco, Danell Leyva, Steven Legendre, Jake Dalton, and Alex Naddour
 
#5 Redemption for Ruggeri 
It's no secret that Paul Ruggeri has never had an excpetional Winter Cup. In fact, he's been quite unlucky in Vegas. Twice now he has suffered injuries at this event, the most recent happening last year. Ruggeri came into the 2011 Winter Cup with momentum of being named alternate for the 2010 World Championships team. His 2011 Winter Cup injury left him out for the season, allowing him to take a 5th year at the University of Illinois. Ruggeri has been looking fantastic of late, currently ranked #1 Nationally on high bar and scoring a nation's best 16.00 on high bar this past weekend. Watch that routine here.
 
#4 Where does Wynn fit in?
The national staff likes Brandon Wynn, but where does he fit in on the US Olympic Team? He was a member of the 2010 World Championships team and is the reigning Pan American Games Champion on Rings. Wynn competes all around but his strong rings physique is just not conducive to a big pommel horse routine. If the US needs a rings specialist, he's the guy, but with a team of just five gymnasts, strong all arounders will have the advantage. 
 
#3 No Defending Champion
Jake Dalton was the surprise winner of this event in 2011 then concluded his season with a trip to the World Championships where he helped Team USA to the bronze medal and qualified to the World Floor final. Knowing his spot on the National Team is safe, the OU gymnast will be taking it easy on just three events. 
 
#2 Youngsters Mikulak and Maestas
Like many of the top current national team members, Jonathan Horton will only compete a few events. This opens the door for new talent to shine. Who will step up as the top guys rest? Something tells me it will be either CJ Maestas (Illinois freshman) or Sam Mikulak (Michigan sophomore) to capture the spotlight. 
 
#1 The Return of Olympic Champion Paul Hamm
The 2004 Olympic Champion has already made one comeback. In 2008, Paul Hamm returned to his familiar role as the nation's top gymnast and was named to the 2008 US Olympic team before ultimately withdrawing due to injury. Feeling the need for a better ending, Hamm announced he would return to training with the intentions of making his comeback in 2011. Yet another injury, this time a torn labrum and rotator cuff, delayed his comeback. Then in September, Hamm was arrested for assault and misdemeanor charges in Ohio. With less than six months to the 2012 Olympics, can Hamm overcome injury, and legal battles, to represent the US at another Olympic Games? And can he return to dominance as in the past? This weekend is the first step, and he plans to compete on everything aside from still rings and high bar. All eyes will be on Hamm in Vegas.


Ways to follow the 2012 Winter Cup Challenge: