A week past this year’s men’s national championships in the U.S. has given us some time here to reflect on the routines and naming of the national team as well as the world championships team.
We now have our new national champion, Mr. Yul Moldauer, a University of Oklahoma rising junior who became the first man not named Sam Mikulak to win the all-around title since 2012. He was exceptional for a lights-out day one, but showed slight signs of fatigue on day two, though he still managed a decisive one-point win over silver medalist and Oklahoma teammate Allan Bower.
The NCAA season is a grueling one and in truth he, as well as the other NCAA athletes, has been going full force since January. That being said, even a tired Moldauer was far and away the best Team USA has to offer at this time — and he’s also truly one of the best in the world. If he can go full out in October, watch for him to stand among the best in Montreal.
In addition to Moldauer, Bower, and bronze medalist Donnell Whittenburg, another five gymnasts were automatically named to the national team based on all-around placement, including Akash Modi, Donothan Bailey, Colin VanWicklen, Kanji Oyama, and Trevor Howard, and then an additional seven men were later added at the discretion of the men’s national selection committee, including four-time national champion Sam Mikulak, 2016 Olympic medalist Alex Naddour, Marvin Kimble, Eddie Penev, Alex Powarzynski, Alec Yoder, and Sean Melton.
My biggest question is: should Michael Wilner and Robert Neff’s names also be among those added?
Robert Neff represented the U.S. at the Summer Universiade in Taipai last week, scoring an 82.100 all-around in an international field. If doubled, it would’ve placed him ahead of Powarzynski, Yoder, and Melton. We also see Mikulak’s name on the list, though he did not win a national title this year, and yet Wilner — who tied for the top spot on rings — was left off. Where is the consistency? I’m not questioning the belonging of the four who made the team over these two, but the logic of the men’s selection committee is pretty bizarre.
What we did learn is:
- Moldauer is dominant and has a shot to run with the best in the world.
- Bower is the real deal.
- Oklahoma is a dynasty of monstrous proportions. What Mark Williams has been able to create with his gymnasts and teams year in and year out is paying off. Over a third of the current national team has ties to Oklahoma. This is exceptional.
- Whittenburg will fight til the end.
- The code of points changes have been good for Naddour. He is hungry for that gold medal on pommel horse and is going to do everything in his power to get it.
- Kimble leaving the Olympic Training Center has been a positive thing. His day two performance really shook up the expectations of many.
- Kanji Oyama joining the OTC has also been a positive thing.
- Zach Mollet was the very first gymnast from Montana to made it to national championships.
- If Penev can clean up his landings, he will be a challenger for vault and floor medals at worlds.
- Mikulak and Whittenburg have taken over Chris Brooks’ role as team cheerleader.
- If Mikulak is able to land without the extra mat AND compete a clean routine, he would have scored around a 14.8 on day two. This score has only been topped by a handful of gymnasts this year, including Brooks at Winter Cup (and he has since retired) as well as Lin Chaopan and Xiao Ruoteng at the Asian Championships.
One of my favorite moments of the meet was seeing brothers Eddie and Kevin Penev on the podium together, especially watching Eddie cheer when Kevin was announced in sixth place among the seniors on floor.
Now about the worlds team. Someone was going to get left off, so despite a fourth place all-around finish, that person ended up being Modi. Had this been a year with a team final, the squad would have been different, but it’s not. This is an individual world championships with six men battling it out for one of three spots on each event in qualifications, and that complicates everything.
Jon Horton spoke earlier this week on Gymcastic about the strategy of the team selection coming down to simply who could bring Team USA the most medals. The following factors were considered when selecting the team and potential alternates:
- The final results will be determined using all results from the 2017 P&G Championships. The results from day one will be added to the results of day two to determine the final results. An athlete who is not able to complete the competition must submit a petition to be considered for the team.
- An evaluation of how competitive an athlete would be for an individual event medal, based on a review of international competition in 2016 and 2017, in order to maximize the medal potential for the U.S. team. This evaluation took into account:
- The percentage of hit routines by the gymnast at nationals
- Start values (D score) on each apparatus at nationals
- Execution (E score) on each apparatus at nationals
- Past performance at domestic and international competitions and at national team training camps. Consideration of competitions includes type, frequency, and level of domestic competitions as well as routine hit percentage in those events
- Demonstrated professional attitude and ability to positively contribute to the team dynamic
- Any physical, training, or performance factor that might inhibit peak performance at worlds
The men who best fit this criteria to earn spots on the worlds team this year include Kimble, Mikulak, Moldauer, Naddour, Penev, and Whittenburg, while the three reserve athletes are Bower, Modi, and VanWicklen.
Moldauer as all-around champion and Naddour as a real contender for the top spot on pommel horse were no-brainers. I would also put Penev and Whittenburg as locks as well, as they each have a chance at a vault medal and potential to make the floor final as well.
But now let’s break down where people have voiced some concern.
I like Mikulak. He is a stellar guy who treats everyone around him with respect. His gymnastics is beautiful and he is an incredibly talented athlete who has had an unfortunate series of injuries that he’s managed to come back from. Even with mistakes over the past four years, he has been the national champion year after year, one of the best Team USA had to offer.
But last weekend was not his time. He was put on the team based on potential, not based on what he showed — and that is unfair. If the men’s committee is going to be so consistently set in their ways to choose the worlds team almost two months out from competition, they need to choose who is ready now. I’m not doubting Mikulak’s potential and I truly believe that he has a shot at gold based on his and other high bar scores this year, but there are probably others who also have potential and “hope for the future,” and they don’t get the same consideration as Mikulak.
Why not just wait a month to see who will actually be prepared for the beginning of October? Or better yet, name the nine athletes in contention based on nationals, but don’t differentiate between the team and the reserve spots until they can prove that they will hit under pressure. If the “hit percentage” was really the top criteria for evaluating routines, then where is the justification for Mikulak? It’s not his fault, obviously, but it’s rather an unfortunate precedent that is continuing into a new chain of command.
The counter argument when justifying naming the team so early is that the Japanese program names its team as early as four months out. But we are not the Japanese. The U.S. men have done well at the world and Olympic level, contrary to popular belief. The U.S. has the fourth-highest medal total in the world since the code of points change in 2006, and yet, they are often dismissed as sloppy seconds. They deserve more respect than that.
But at the same time, even though the U.S. men’s medal count ranks in the top five in the world, this is not to their potential. The program needs to find a system that works better for its athletes. Maybe the solution is naming the team four months out, or maybe it’s one month out, but the two-month tradition has not helped the team to get the results they’re capable of producing. In fact, this system last year initially left a man off the team who went on to be the most-decorated on his team after Danell Leyva came in to replace the injured John Orozco, with that one example proving exactly how weak the process is. There is now new leadership and a new training camp system, so with this new era in place, shouldn’t there also be a new strategy when it comes to choosing the athletes?
Moving on to silver medalist Bower, who missed the team despite his all-around finish, the reasoning here is unfortunate, but also quite clear: he didn’t break the top three on any event but pommel horse. Had this been a team competition, I have no doubt that he would have been the second or third name on that list. He is consistent with a hit percentage of 100% over the two-day competition at nationals, and from all accounts, he is kind and a true team player, words that don’t come lightly in a sport that can be dusted with pompous attitudes.
The decision to leave behind Modi, though, is one I have a little bit of difficulty understanding. He, like Bower, is also generally consistent, but he did count a fall on pommel horse. I’m not all that worried about this, though, because unlike recent years the U.S. actually has solid depth on pommel horse, and the need for him on this event in the coming years is unlikely.
With the fall, Modi’s hit percentage at nationals was 91% and his parallel bars are outstanding. I consider this event one of the most difficult on which to reach an event final at worlds this year, but even still, unless something drastic happens Modi is a huge part of the future of the men’s program in the U.S., and the reasoning for leaving him behind is somewhat questionable.
Which leaves us with Kimble. Kimble was this year’s national champion on high bar and the co-champion on rings, an accomplishment to be sure. His average on rings is a 14.95, a huge score that tops even the best in the sport, including two-time Olympic medalist Arthur Zanetti of Brazil from earlier this year.
The thing is, several of the U.S. men — including world team members Moldauer, Naddour, and Whittenburg — have scored higher than that this year. With only three qualification spots, who is going to get left out for a chance at a medal? It won’t be Moldauer, because he will have to go up on the event in order to qualify to the all-around final, and so Naddour, Whittenburg, and Kimble will all go head-to-head for that spot. If Kimble doesn’t end up being a top choice, that realistically leaves only high bar for him.
So now let’s look at high bar. If you take out Mikulak’s built-in neutral deduction for using a landing mat, that alone would’ve made him the national champion even with his fall. High bar has a weak international field this year, so maybe that is reason alone to take Kimble, even if he doesn’t end up competing rings. But with an overall hit percentage of 58%, his inclusion on the team just doesn’t make sense.
If the selection committee was going to give Mikulak the chance to “compete for the future instead of right now,” then why not give the same consideration to Bower or Modi, who are more likely to be relevant than Kimble in the coming years with team competition at world championships?
There was no obvious team this year, aside from taking Moldauer and Naddour. Anyone who makes it to this level has worked harder than we can ever know, and they should all be proud of what they’ve accomplished. At The Gymternet, though, we attempt to provide an unbiased analysis in an attempt to understand why the committee may have gone with the decisions they ended up making, and while there’s always going to be something questionable in a program with the bittersweet problem of too much depth, this year many decisions felt especially off.
Congratulations to everyone who competed this year, to the members of the senior national team, to the reserve athletes for worlds, and to the six men who made the worlds team! We wish everyone a healthy training leading up to Montreal.
Article by Kensley Behel
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