Young and eager, U.S. men aspire to team podium in Doha
By Blythe Lawrence
Sam Mikulak wants an individual World medal. Yul Moldauer would like another. Akash Modi aims to show he belongs. Alec Yoder dreams of a pommel horse final. And Colin Van Wicklen wants you to know that even though this week’s World Gymnastics Championships in Doha is his first ever international assignment, he’s ready to meet the challenge.
The individual ambitions vary. The team goal — get the U.S. men back on the podium for the first time since 2014 — doesn’t.
“I think everybody has something to prove,” said Mikulak, who busted out some dance moves as he grooved his way through the U.S. men’s podium training session in Qatar Monday. “Everyone has nothing to lose and everything to gain. This is one of the hardest working teams I’ve ever been a part of. They’ve worked so hard to get where they are. Everyone feels like this is their time, that there are great opportunities here.”
For Mikulak, that includes a long-desired individual medal after fourth place finishes on high bar at both the Rio Olympics and 2013 Worlds. The two-time Olympian, who won his fifth U.S. all-around title in August, is well aware his domestic accolades outshine what he’s been able to accomplish in international finals.
This year, things feel different, he says. Mikulak credits lifestyle changes, including living with his girlfriend and being a dogfather to a bull terrier puppy named Marshall, as having a stabilizing force on him, keeping him from obsessing over gymnastics when he’s not training.
As a team, the American men are not considered the frontrunners at these worlds. That honor belongs to Olympic champion Japanese, led by the indomitable Kohei Uchimura and supertwister Kenzo Shirai, who are looking to retain the World title they took home in 2015. Russia and China, the respective 2016 Olympic team silver and bronze medalists, are projected to be their chief challengers. The U.S., Great Britain, France and Ukraine are all likely chasers, jockeying for position on the outside.
Not that the Americans are focusing on their opponents. “We can’t go in there looking around watching other countries and being scared,” said Moldauer, who earned bronze on floor at his rookie Worlds last year in Montreal. “We need to go in there, trust our gymnastics, trust each other, and take each event one at a time. I have this great feeling that we’re going to do it. We all know what it’s like to compete as a team. We just can’t let our surroundings affect us.”
The top three teams in Doha automatically secure a team berth to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, though Olympic qualification by no means ends there. The top 24 advance to next year’s World Championships in Stuttgart, where nine more nations will round out the Olympic team roster.
The Americans lack some difficulty compared to some teams, which heightens the importance of consistency. “We know that this Worlds is going to be really hard to medal as a team, but we’re just going to try to hit 18 for 18,” said Modi. In preparation for Worlds, the 2016 Olympic alternate has taken to beginning his workouts at 7:30 a.m., aligning with the time the U.S. will be warming up in Doha. The men will compete at 9 a.m. on October 26, the second of two days of qualification, in the same subdivision as Japan.
“This is the most excited I’ve ever been before a meet. My gymnastics feels extremely good and I’m just excited to get out there,” added Modi, who entertains hopes of making the high bar final “if I could put it all together” in qualifications.
Rounding out the squad are Yoder, the bronze medalist in the all-around at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games and reigning U.S. champion on pommel horse, and Van Wicklen, a powerful tumbler and vaulter who will be making his international debut at Worlds. Neither feels daunted by Doha.
“I’m 100 percent ready for this,” said Van Wicklen, whose training videos posted on Instagram bear the hashtag #ShockTheWorld. “International experience is always important, but in the end it’s all the same. You salute the judge and do your best possible routine. I’m going to treat World Championships just like any other competition. This team is a group of really close friends, and I feel it will be easy to stay within ourselves and not focus on outside noise or factors.”
“This competition is just another competition,” Yoder echoed. “I’m going to take it in stride, no matter what.”
One common thread linking all five, as well as traveling alternate Allan Bower, is their experience competing in the NCAA. Moldauer, Van Wicklen and Bower honed their skills at Oklahoma. Mikulak was a star for Michigan, Modi the same at Stanford. Yoder competes for Ohio State. Each feels the college experience has helped prepare them to go to Worlds.
“We’re a team that builds off momentum,” Mikulak said. “We’re going to use that to our advantage. We don’t have the highest start levels, but we can hit well and stick well, and I think that’s going to be our best chance at a medal.”