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The Veteran Moldauer Among Top Contenders Headed Into Wide-Open Gymnastics Nationals

by Chrös McDougall

Yul Moldauer salutes to the crowd and judges after competing in the men's high bar event during the 2023 U.S. Classic on Aug. 6, 2023 in Hoffman Estates, Ill. (Photo by Team USA)

The approach was working out pretty well for Yul Moldauer. His emphasis on exquisitely executing his gymnastics, perhaps at the expense of some higher-difficulty skills, made him a national champion, a world championships medalist, and, ultimately, an Olympian.

But it wasn’t enough.

The last thing Moldauer told reporters before ending his first Olympics experience in Tokyo was that he was pumped to get home and start training again, eager to boost his routines with an eye on the podium in 2024.

The Tokyo showing wasn’t enough for the U.S. team either. Stuck in the second tier, always a spot or two away from the podium, team members were cleared-eyed in that the difference between a top-five finish and the podium was in difficulty scores. The sport’s best teams were simply doing bigger gymnastics.

Both Muldauer, individually, and the entire men’s program, have been working to close the gap. For Moldauer that meant sacrificing some execution for bigger skills. For the team, it was a bonus system designed to reward gymnasts for attempting harder skills in their domestic competitions.

Year one yielded mixed results. Moldauer ended up making the trip to England for the world championships, but for the first time in six years, he wasn’t a competing member of the team. Instead, he was the traveling alternate. The team, meanwhile, showed promise but still finished fifth, matching its placement from Tokyo.

The 2022 world championships were never the goal, though.

After the competition Moldauer stayed in Europe for several weeks to compete in the German Bundesliga league and the Swiss Cup, returning home in December. From there he’s been full-bore in 2023, taking home the Winter Cup title in February and the Pam Am title in May, with another competition in Germany sandwiched between them. This summer, he joined his teammates in France for an extended training camp, allowing them to gain some familiarity with the country ahead of the Olympic Games Paris 2024.

All of this preparation is to get him ready for those Paris Games, ideally with a stop at this fall’s world championships in Belgium along the way.

Moldauer’s progress will be on display this weekend when the men compete Thursday and Saturday in the Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships in San Jose, California, a competition that will also determine the five-man squad for the world championships.

And with two-time defending champion Brody Malone out with injury, the field is as wide open as it’s been in a generation.

“I’m feeling good,” Moldauer, 26, of Arvada, Colorado, said. “I’m excited.”

Asher Hong competes in the floor event during the Core Hydration Classic on Aug. 6-8, 2023 in Hoffman Estates, Ill. (Photo by USOPC)

At least a half-dozen gymnasts arrived in the Bay Area this week with realistic hopes of winning the national title. Moldauer is expected to face the strongest competition from two rising stars in Asher Hong and Fred Richard, both 19. They’re also the only three Americans to break 85 points in the all-around season.

Hong, long viewed in gymnastics circles as a potential star, mostly lived up to the hype in finishing third in his first national championships as a senior last year. He then took sixth in his world championships debut. The Tomball, Texas, native, who wrapped up his freshman season at Stanford with an NCAA team and vault title, packs the difficulty into his routines, which positions him well to benefit from the bonus.

“(I) took the summer to really build up and get comfortable with all my routines for Classics, and Classics was the test for all the upgrades,” said Hong, who scored 85.305 there. “It felt really good at Classics, and here I am now preparing to show off the awesome upgrades I have for the season.”

Meanwhile, the charismatic Richard arrives in San Jose with the best U.S. all-around score in 2023, having dropped an 85.998 to win the NCAA title as a Michigan freshman. The Stoughton, Massachusetts, native also added NCAA titles on parallel bars and high bar.

The trio has yet to face off at full strength this year. While Hong scored 85.305 to win the Core Hydration Classic earlier this month in the Chicago area, Moldauer used that competition as a warm-up and didn’t compete in the all-around. Richard elected to skip that meet to instead compete at the World University Games in China, where he took fourth.

“Classics was taking place at the same time as the University Games, but I decided to go to China instead. A lot of people are wondering why,” Richard said. “My goal stands that same, which is to compete against the highest-level guys across the world and get to that level myself. And I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.”

Did we mention this year’s field is wide open, though?

Malone had separated himself over the past two seasons — the Stanford star and 2020 Olympian won last year’s national title by more than five points, then placed fourth at the world championships while winning the world title on high bar. However, in March he suffered a gruesome knee injury on his high bar dismount at a competition in Germany. After multiple surgeries, he’s optimistic that he’ll be back in time for next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.

Shane Wiskus looks on during men's podium training at the 2023 U.S. Classic on Aug. 3, 2023 in Hoffman Estates, Ill. (Photo by Team USA)

Among the others looking to fill that void this weekend is fellow Olympian Shane Wiskus, who like Moldauer was an alternate at last year’s world championships. He’s since moved his training base to EVO Gymnastics, an upstart program in Florida where Olympic teammate Sam Mikulak is one of the coaches and several post-collegiate U.S. gymnasts train and earn a salary.

Wiskus told his hometown newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that he’s adding difficulty and “everything is falling right where it needs to be” in his larger plan.

Other contenders in San Jose could include Michigan teammates Paul Juda and Cameron Bock, who both showed well in the U.S. Classic. Juda was the 2022 NCAA champion. Then there’s the veteran Donnell Whittenburg, who finished as the U.S. runner-up in 2022 and brings explosive power, especially on vault and rings. At 29 years old, he’s seeking his sixth world championships berth on the way to a first Olympics.

Also keep an eye on Khoi Young and Riley Loos, who are among 12 Stanford athletes expected to make the short trip down to San Jose, and who each finished among the top five at the U.S. Classic. Two other Cardinal gymnasts, Jeremy Bischoff and Colt Walker, took seventh and eighth. Including Hong, that means Stanford gymnasts filled five of the top eight spots at the U.S. Classic.

The men’s field also includes a couple of key specialists. That list starts with Stephen Nedoroscik, the 2021 world champion on pommel horse, while Alex Diab (still rings) and Curran Phillips (parallel bars) bring high-scoring potential in their signature events. Those three also train with Wiskus at EVO.

With one year to go before the Olympic Games Paris 2024, competition is expected to be tight for the five spots in the world championships, which will take place Sept. 30-Oct. 8 in Antwerp, Belgium. Unlike the U.S. women’s team, the men will name the five-person squad at the end of the weekend. And unlike in previous years, gymnasts cannot earn one of those spots automatically based on their all-around finish in San Jose. Instead, USA Gymnastics will select the roster based on scoring potential in Antwerp.

An additional five men will also be selected for the Pan American Games set for Oct. 20-Nov. 5 in Santiago, Chile.