With the announcement of Jake Dalton’s retirement last week, four of the five members of the men’s 2012 Olympic team are now no longer competing, leaving only Sam Mikulak, who also competed at a second Olympics in Rio last summer.
Mikulak is only a few months post surgery and it is unlikely that this year he will be able to continue his dominance and tie Blaine Wilson’s record of five consecutive national all-around titles in Anaheim this week. In truth, we haven’t seen much from Mikulak since his surgery aside from an eighth-place pommel horse routine at the men’s qualifier earlier this summer, in addition to a few Instagram videos highlighting specific skills on that event and on high bar. It’s understandable, considering it’s only been a few months since his Achilles tear, and yet the gymternet is still curious to see what events he’ll compete and what quality he’ll bring to his performance this weekend.
The only other member of the Rio Olympic team we’ll see at nationals is Alex Naddour, who earned a bronze medal on pommel horse at the Games. He should pretty easily defend his national title on that event to secure his spot on this year’s worlds team, where he’ll hope to fight for what could be the first individual worlds medal of his career after helping his team to bronze in 2011 and 2014.
With Mikulak’s ability up in the air and if this spring is any indicator, the fight for the national title will come down to Yul Moldauer and Akash Modi. At the two-day Winter Cup competition earlier this year, each posted the top score on one of the days, but it was Moldauer who came out on top overall, winning the meet by a total of seven tenths. Two months later, Modi came back to take the victory at NCAA Championships. At the American Cup, it was Moldauer who got the win, but then Modi defeated Moldauer at the MPSF Championships. Who will win the national title? It could go either way, and should be an incredibly close fight between the two who have gone back and forth all season, making for a friendly rivalry and an always thrilling match for fans of the sport.
Joining them to add to the excitement this weekend will be Olympic alternate Donnell Whittenburg, who excels on vault and rings, national qualifier champion Marvin Kimble, Winter Cup floor champion Eddie Penev, and Stuttgart World Cup floor, rings, and vault medalist Allan Bower.
Whittenburg will be hungry for big things this year after being named as an Olympic alternate in 2016, an honor to be sure, but not the placement he desired. At worlds this year, only three men will be able to compete on each event in qualifications, which makes things a little messy in terms of how the team will be structured. Depending on the strategy that the U.S. men’s program decides to take, either Whittenburg and Penev will be challenging for the same spot, or one of the top all-arounders won’t get to compete all six events in Montreal, and we’ll instead see Whittenburg and Penev both on the team, fighting to bring multiple vault and rings medals home for Team USA.
Bower is a solid gymnast who earned some international notoriety as a senior elite this year, earning spots at competitions in Germany and Portugal. He is dependable, placing no lower than sixth on any event with the exception of high bar, so look for him to make an impact in the team setting in the upcoming years.
There are also a few NCAA and former NCAA gymnasts that could throw a wrench into the list of gymnasts expected to make the worlds team, depending on how prepared they end up looking at nationals.
The gymnast I’m particularly curious to see is Sean Melton. He has the potential for a breakout year, but the only ‘problem’ is that he excels at the exact same events as some of the other top gymnasts in the country. He is especially strong on rings and parallel bars, where the U.S. has a good amount of depth at the moment, so a solid performance from him might not be enough, though if he breaks into the top two on an event it could make things interesting looking forward to worlds.
Another member of the Ohio State team is standout Alec Yoder. Yoder, who excels at pommel horse, has been on the comeback trail from a shoulder injury. Following his win on pommel horse at the Winter Cup in 2016, people were hailing him as the USA’s hope for an Olympic medal. This probably isn’t his year, but Yoder is still very young and we’ll see big things from him in the coming years.
Jordan Valdez was an interesting name to see on the list of nationals competitors that USA Gymnastics released last week. Valdez was the 2014 NCAA high bar champion and 2015 Winter Cup high bar silver medalist. The U.S. is relatively weak on this event right now, as the case seems to be in the rest of the world as well. If he shows up in peak form, he could nab a worlds team spot for high bar.
Should Naddour falter, Brandon Ngai of the University of Illinois could be ready to take his place. A really solid performer, he brings both difficulty and beautiful lines to pommel horse, the event some consider the most difficult piece in men’s artistic gymnastics.
Rounding out our favorite specialists to keep an eye on are the two front runners for the single vault score, Anthony McCallum and Matthew Wenske. McCallum performs an exceptional tsuk double pike and Wenske has a beautiful Kas double. Should either of them add second vaults, we could be looking at some serious challengers for the vault title.
For world championships, six gymnasts will be named to the team, but the equivalent of only three all-around spots are available to each team during qualifications. Federations will have to decide between bringing two all-arounders with the remaining four gymnasts there to compete one or two events apiece, or bringing a sole all-arounder, which will give them more freedom to maximize event medal potential with the remaining five gymnasts.
Only the performances at nationals will tell, but if the goal of Team USA is to bring home the greatest number of medals possible, my locks for the worlds team would be Moldauer (all-around), Modi (all-around), and Naddour (pommels and rings).
Things get tough when looking at the vault/floor spot, though, and it’s going to really depend on who hits between Whittenburg and Penev. I’m tempted to give it to Whittenburg based on his additional strength on rings and parallel bars, but as mentioned before, perhaps we could see both end up competing with the hope of seeing two U.S. men medal on the same events. It would mean only one all-arounder could end up competing, but if the chances at medals on individual events are higher than the chances of multiple all-around medals, it could be worth it.
There is also a strong pull for Bower. He can compete all-around if needed, and has a few standout events as well. And depending on what Mikulak brings to nationals, he could grab a spot for high bar. He has been so close to winning an individual medal at worlds or the Olympics so many times, and I’d love to see him put together an incredible high bar set for some sweet redemption.
Article by Kensley Behel
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