Sam Mikulak, Yul Moldauer, Brody Malone highlight U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team
Brody Malone went from sitting outside the picture for the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team to being the first to lock in his trip to Tokyo in a matter of weeks.
The 21-year-old won the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials in St. Louis to automatically qualify for the four-person team. He is the youngest member of the five U.S. men’s gymnasts who will compete in Tokyo.
“So much was going through my head,” Malone said of knowing he was going to the Olympics. “I was just thankful for my coaches. I ran up and thanked them for everything they’ve done for me.”
Yul Moldauer also guaranteed his Olympic debut by meeting both requirements of the second spot -- second in the all-around and finishing top three on at least three apparatuses.
After the selection committee met to decide the two remaining team members, it was determined Shane Wiskus and Sam Mikulak who were announced and will make up the strongest U.S. team.
Alec Yoder was chosen for the individual spot -- new to this year’s Olympic program -- and will vie for a pommel horse medal in Japan. He also competes on parallel bars, though was eighth in the nation at both the 2021 U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials.
Mikulak is headed to his third Olympics and will join a list of just 10 other Americans who have competed at three or more Olympic Games. At 28, he is younger than any of the men on that list were at their third Games -- even with the one-year Olympic postponement.
Blaine Wilson was the last U.S. gymnast to make three Olympic teams, in 2004, when he won his first and only medal. Mikulak will hope to do the same at what he has promised will be his final Olympic appearance. His best result to date was fourth on high bar in Rio, and he has since won bronze on the event at the 2018 Worlds.
Malone won the U.S. junior title in 2017 but had never competed against the nation’s best at the senior level until earlier this month at the 2021 U.S. Championships. He missed the 2018 and 2019 editions, first while moving from his small Georgia hometown to Stanford and then to compete at the Pan American Games.
The rising Stanford senior was a star at the collegiate level, though, winning the NCAA title as a freshman in 2019 and defending his crown in 2021 (both NCAAs and U.S. Championships were not held in 2020 due to the pandemic).
He made headlines at nationals in Fort Worth, Texas, both for his gymnastics excellence and his background. Malone won nationals among a deep field that included six-time U.S. champion Mikulak and 2017 U.S. champ Moldauer. Of note, only Mikulak and Moldauer had won the NCAA men’s championship as freshmen before Malone.
It then became well known that Malone grew up competing in rodeo -- team roping with younger brother Cooper, to be exact -- and that his hobbies include ‘frog gigging’ (hunting frogs with a long, pronged spear, in his case for the purpose of a frog fry), a term he helped introduce to many.
He remained his calm, cool, collected and unfazed self at Trials, leading from the fifth rotation on Thursday’s Day 1 all the way through to the 12th and final rotation Saturday afternoon. His final score of 171.6 points was 3 ahead of Moldauer (168.6).
“Everything from the past, all my accomplishments, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Malone commented on his massive breakthrough year. “It’s a clean slate at each meet, so I just try to take it one event at a time.”
Malone won high bar with a two-day score of 29.25, and was second on both floor exercise (29.1) and still rings (28.45).
He is expected to contend for an Olympic medal on high bar at that event final in early August.
“That was as perfect as any routine I’ve seen,” NBC commentator and Olympic medalist Tim Daggett said of Malone’s routine, adding that it was “spectacular.”
Now 24, Moldauer first made his name known by winning the 2017 American Cup and 2017 U.S. Championships, when Mikulak was only competing two events, and then going on to earn bronze on floor at the 2017 Worlds.
Moldauer remained one of the top men throughout this Olympic quad, as U.S. all-around runner-up in both 2018 and 2019, and helped the U.S. team to fourth at the past two world championships.
Five years after his first Olympic Trials, where he was no better than fifth on any given event, this time Moldauer won parallel bars with a score of 28.95, was second on pommel horse (28.35) and third on floor (29.05).
The 22-year-old Wiskus, who was second on Thursday and traded spots with Moldauer throughout Saturday, finished third with 168.15 points. He was second on parallel bars (28.85) and third on high bar (27.4).
“I dropped to the floor and hugged my coach,” he said of making the team. “I still really haven’t had time to process it, so generally overwhelmed. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight; so many things running through my head right now.”
Mikulak was fourth (166.75), but a fall on pommel horse seemed to make his Olympic chances a little dicey.
Still, Malone, Moldauer, Wiskus and Mikulak make up the most competitive team based on their Trials scores.
Mikulak had the highest score on floor (29.3) and second best on high bar (28.6).
“The whole time [we waited to find out the team], pommel horse was on my mind. Was that the one moment that blew it for me?” Mikulak said.
Then he learned his fate.
“I’ve been living in the moment for so long. … All of a sudden that moment came, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I actually did it.’ Everything got emotional.”
At the Olympics, three men will compete on each apparatus in the team final and all three scores will count.
The U.S. men were fifth at the last two Olympics and are seeking their first team medal since 2008. Powerhouses Japan, China and Russia have made up every Olympic and World podium since 2016; Japan and China have been on the last 11.
“This team is very same-goal-oriented,” Moldauer said. “We all know in previous years the U.S. hasn’t done as well, and we’re all hungry. Shane’s a young guy, Brody’s a young guy, and then we have Sam who’s been to a lot of Olympics. ...
“The mindset is always trying to get on the podium. That’s a challenge and that’s the challenge I like to take on.”
As for Yoder, the specialist spot appeared to come down to himself, fellow pommel swinger Stephen Nedoroscik and two-time U.S. rings champion Alex Diab.
Reigning national champion and 2020 Melbourne World Cup winner Nedoroscik fell off the horse on Thursday, but on Saturday he outscored Yoder, who had a few minor errors of his own.
“I was really scared,” Yoder laughed of waiting to learn his fate. “I had a really, really good routine Day 1, and I think Day 2 was a little more wobbly. I was pretty nervous. I know Alex Diab had some killer sets, I know Stephen had a good set today, and so in my mind I was just crossing my fingers and trying to ignore all the text messages I was getting asking if I made the team. I feel like there was too much going through my mind, honestly.”
Men’s high performance director Brett McClure, himself a 2004 Olympic team silver medalist, said the decision came down to Yoder or Diab.
“The start values were definitely something that we really looked at moving forward,” McClure explained. “Rings, you need that 6.3, and pommel horse anywhere from a 6.3-6.6.”
Yoder’s pommel horse difficulty was 6.5 on Day 1 and 6.4 Day 2. Diab’s on rings was 6.0 both days.
Yoder, 24, competed at the Youth Olympic Games in 2014, taking bronze in the all-around, but now with his Olympic debut locked up, he’s set a new goal.
“The next goal is an Olympic pommel horse medal,” he proclaimed.
Five traveling replacement athletes were also named.
Brandon Briones, Cameron Bock, Allan Bower and Akash Modi were chosen to form a strong alternate team, should, for example, one of the Olympic team members test positive for COVID-19 and the entire team have to be removed due to contact tracing. 2018 Youth Olympian Briones, 2016 Olympic alternate Modi and three-time world team alternate Bower were fifth through seventh in the all-around. Bock was 10th but had the fourth-best scores on parallel bars and high bar; he was fifth on pommel horse.
Diab is the alternate for Yoder.
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