Sizing Up The Men Competing In The U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials
by Chrös McDougall
Yul Moldauer poses during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on November 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.
Who to Watch presented by DeVry is a series that includes a run-down on the front runners, dark horses, unexpected athletes and top storylines to watch during Trials.
There is no forgiveness in the Olympic gymnastics team final, and the stakes for this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials just got a higher, too.
Typically both the U.S. Gymnastics Championships and U.S. Olympic Team Trials are taken into account when selecting the Olympic team, but because some of the American men missed nationals in order to compete at the Pan American Championships, the process has been condensed to only use trials this year.
That means everyone must be at the top of their games when the full field gathers for the trials this week in St. Louis. The men compete Thursday and Saturday at the Dome at America’s Center, and the Olympic athletes will be named at the end of the competition.
Fans already got to see most of the top U.S. men in action three weeks ago at the national championships in Fort Worth, Texas. The late adjustment to the selection procedures proved worth it, though, as Paul Juda’s second-place finish at the Pan Am event in Brazil confirmed an individual Olympic spot for the U.S. men. That means in addition to selecting the four-person U.S. team, officials will also be looking to fill a “plus-one” spot. That athlete won’t be able to take part in the team competition but can compete on all six events in the Olympic qualifying round and potentially add to the U.S. medal count.
Now Team USA just has to fill those five spots.
For the actual team competition, look for the selections to emphasize all-arounders. With just four spots on the actual team, down from five in previous Olympics, as well as a three up-three count format in the team finals, there will be a premium on gymnasts who can do all six events — and consistently hit their routines. In fact, the all-around champion at trials will automatically make the Olympic team, as will the runner-up, so long as he’s also top-three on at least three events. The remaining spots, including the individual, will be selected by a committee.
Going into the Tokyo Games, the U.S. selection committee will have a tough task. With China, Ja-pan and Russia having separated themselves as the three dominant teams in men’s gymnastics, and the U.S. having finished fourth in the last two world championships, should the Americans build the strongest team possible in hopes of finding a way onto the podium? Or should the priority be to bring the most individual medal contenders, even if that leaves some vulnerabilities in the team competition?
Whatever they decide, here’s a look at the names who should be in contention.
Making the Men’s Team
He’s no longer the national champ, but Sam Mikulak still brings the star power in the men’s field. The only Olympian in the field, Mikulak is a pretty safe bet to make his third Games in Tokyo even after uncharacteristic struggles on the first night of the U.S. championships ended any hopes of a seventh national all-around title. After shaking the rust off from his first competition in 15 months, Mikulak came back to post the highest score on night two and finish third overall. He also won the high bar, marking his 19th national title across all events. On the right night in Tokyo, the 28-year-old Colorado resident, by way of California and Michigan, could be a medal contender in the all-around and high bar.
The performance that knocked Mikulak off his throne was no fluke, though. Two-time NCAA champ Brody Malone of Stanford was rock solid at nationals to run away with his first U.S. title. Also finishing first on vault and second on rings and high bar, the 21-year-old Georgia native appears to be setting himself up as Mikulak’s heir apparent on the domestic front.
With the Olympic team format favoring all-arounders, the top group heading into St. Louis includes a handful of other top contenders. Atop that list is Yul Moldauer, who was third in Fort Worth and is now a veteran of three world championships. The former Oklahoma star won a floor bronze medal at the 2017 world championships and finished one spot off the podium the next year. Shane Wiskus also came into the Olympic year with momentum after making his world championships debut in 2019. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher appeared to be building on that resume in Fort Worth until the final routine, when he fell off high bar three times and dropped from second to ninth place.
Other all-arounders who could be in the mix include another Stanford gymnast, Brandon Briones, who finished fourth at nationals, as well as veterans Allan Bower (fifth) and Akash Modi (sixth). Consistent and reliable, Bower was named the traveling alternate to all three world championships this past quad but never to the big show. He finished among the top-six on three events at nationals. Modi, meanwhile was an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team who competed in back-to-back world championships in 2018 and ’19.
Also among the top 10 in Fort Worth were Robert Neff (seventh), Ian Gunther (eighth) and Matt Wenske (tenth). Paul Juda, who earned the individual quota, figures to be in this mix come trials, too.
The battle for the plus-one spot on the U.S. men’s side could be fierce. Officially the criteria for picking this gymnast is medal potential, said U.S. national team coordinator Brett McClure. Presumably any all-around medal contenders will already be on the team, but there are several U.S. specialists who could fit the description.
One name who will no longer be in the mix, however, is Eddie Penev. Arguably the favorite going into trials, Penev announced on social media Monday that he injured his knee during his final mock meet last week and was forced to withdraw from trials. It was the latest injury setback in a quad full of them for the 30-year-old, a senior elite gymnast since 2012 who appeared to be finally back on top of his game in Fort Worth, where he posted the top score on floor exercise and tied for second best on vault.
“Devastated doesn’t articulate the half of what I’m feeling,” he wrote, in part, on Instagram.
Even with Penev out, the competition for the specialists remains fierce.
Alex Diab continues to establish himself as the country’s still rings star. A two-time NCAA champ in the event for Illinois, Diab defended his U.S. rings title in Fort Worth. Meanwhile, Oklahoma gymnast Gage Dyer was right at Penev’s heels in Fort Worth, finishing second on floor and third on vault. The 22-year-old is coming off NCAA titles in both events this spring.
Two others to watch include Stephen Nedoroscik and Alec Yoder, who finished 1-2 on pommel horse at nationals. Six routines there hit the 15-point mark, with Nedoroscik and Yoder each claim-ing two of them. (Malone on high bar and Penev on floor were the others). Nedoroscik rose to prominence after winning two NCAA horse titles for Penn State, and then won internationally at a world cup in Australia. Yoder, a 2014 Youth Olympian, was a member of the 2018 world championships team after winning a U.S. title on the horse.
Two veterans who didn’t compete at nationals could be wildcards in St. Louis.
Donnell Whittenburg, the other 2016 Olympic alternate, has battled injuries throughout the quad but is an ultra-powerful gymnast who has made event finals in all three of the world champion-ships he’s competed in, including winning a vault bronze medal in 2015. He missed nationals to go to the Pan Ams in Brazil. Colin Van Wicklen, meanwhile, made his world championships debut in 2018 and can hit a big routine on high bar; however, the former Oklahoma Sooner sat out nationals due to adrenal fatigue, saying on Twitter that as recently as May he could “barely walk” and fell down the stairs. Despite this, he says he’s working toward trials and eager to “prove all my fans right.”
Of course, in the world of team building anything can happen. If the U.S. officials feel they have three strong all-arounders, might they bring a specialist like Diab just for one big score? Or if the U.S. all-arounders lack depth on, say, pommel horse, might that open the door for a Nedoroscik or Yoder to get on the squad? Perhaps the most likely situation, though, is that U.S. officials deter-mine more than one of the specialists have the right stuff to make the finals and then must deter-mine who among them has the best shot of reaching the podium.