In just over one week’s time, you might find yourself watching the men compete at US nationals, simultaneously developing the sudden need to have extreme, loud, and uncompromising opinions about who should go to worlds based on the exactly three routines you just watched.
It’s an important part of the gymnerd experience.
To supplement these extreme opinions, here’s a little refresher on the major players and what their whole deals are right now.
We’ll start with Sam Mikulak (you know him!), who will be returning to his traditional status as all-around favorite at nationals this year. Last year, Mikulak was attempting to come back from his Achilles tendon transforming into the tentacles of a sadistic octopus and therefore competed only two events at nationals, horse and high bar. He was nonetheless named to the worlds team to compete high bar, but not without a little Simone-Morgan about whether he had truly earned a spot on the team with his performances in the lead-up to worlds.
This year, there should be no such controversy. Mikulak is back to competing the all-around and reminding everyone that the reason he gets named to every team every year is that he’s better than the other choices, especially on key events to the US team.
There’s always the worry about inconsistency, because Sam will fall sometimes, but his all-around scoring potential and strengths are far too valuable to the US team to be compromised by falls here and there. Mikulak went 86 at both days of Winter Cup to win the competition in a breeze, and would have recorded another 86 at the national qualifier had he chosen to compete vault. An 86 is the score this quad (all necessary caveats about domestic scoring included).
Best placed to challenge Mikulak will be exemplar of all that is good and right in men’s gymnastics, Yul Moldauer. Moldauer put himself directly in the mix with his American Cup score of 85.964, and seeing him win his second straight national championship would not be a surprise at all. The playbook on Moldauer is the same as it has been. He doesn’t have the huge, event-final type D scores, but it doesn’t matter so much because of his execution.
That’s an asset not just for his all-around prospects but also on a five-person worlds team. The US knows it will not be able to put three massive routines on each event onto a five-person team, there just isn’t room, but the US also knows that wherever the team might feel a little thin, Moldauer can go and get through with a good, clean set that can pick up ground on any other sloppies who might have been selected for their teams because of D.
The wildcard is Marvin Kimble. Difficulty-wise, Kimble can contend with (or beat) anyone else in the entire meet, especially if he is bringing a 5.6 vault. On the other hand, we know that the execution will not be as crisp as some others and that there will be falls. That’s why it’s hard to place Kimble in the same category of AA favorite as Mikulak or Moldauer despite his potential routines.
What truly works in Kimble’s favor, and what makes him look like more of a lock for worlds than he might otherwise be, are his specific event strengths. Like high bar.
An important issue to keep in mind when watching the US men this quad is that high bar is basically the new pommel horse. This current group is not nearly as deep on high bar as recent generations were, which makes the ability to deliver a HB score a bigger asset in team-selection decisions than it was in past years. The US would really prefer not to have to put up a 5.3/13.5 on HB in the worlds team final, but it might happen. With Kimble’s big difficulty on high bar, as long as you believe he can hit that routine consistently (as well as pommel horse—a big if, I know), it doesn’t really matter how the other four routines go.
EDIT: The latest twist is a hamstring injury to Kimble, which means he will either perform only a few events at nationals or just try to petition to the selection camp.
A big question mark is the status of Donnell Whittenburg, coming back from a shoulder injury. There’s absolutely a place for a full-strength Donnell Whittenburg and his four good events on a US team this year, especially because of the ACL injury to Eddie Penev that we’re going to pretend didn’t happen because the world is full of nothing but chocolates and rainbows LALALALALA.
With his main competition on vault and floor out of the running, Whittenburg’s ability to score 15s on those events would be a major asset to the US. But, he’s still in the comeback phase, just getting back to full rings routines again this month, and we don’t know what level we’re going to see at nationals.
This year, the committee will select a team of 8 members directly following nationals and then will determine which of those gymnasts get the 5 actual team spots at a selection camp, held September 19-23. That’s good news for someone who’s coming back like Whittenburg in that he has some leeway at nationals. He’d just have to make the 8 right now, be close enough to seem like he might be ready soon, and then aim to start the peaking process for the selection camp.
For the other competitors, nationals is about finding their in—the event(s) where they bring something no one else can bring in a team final context. Akash Modi is looking for that in. Modi’s best events are pommel horse and PBars, two events where he could definitely compete in a team final, score something in the 14s, and you would be totally cool with it.
The problem for Modi is that the group above isn’t exactly screaming out for a PBars routine—or even necessarily a horse routine. Critical for Modi at nationals, therefore, will be showing that he’s not just good on those events, but really good. Better than Moldauer, good.
Something else Modi could have going for him is his D score on high bar, currently 5.9. That’s a pretty competitive D, though Modi has never exactly been considered a high bar prince because he’s likely to put up an E score in the 7s and score in the mid-13s. Lots of people in the US can get that score. Rather, the US is looking for another 14 on HB to go with Mikulak and Kimble, and it may be that Modi has to start 14ing on high bar more consistently to make his mark in the current group.
Some else looking for an in is Alec Yoder, but we know exactly what his in would be—pommel horse. Yoder is the heir apparent and new US pommel whore, with the capability of reaching 15s on his best days.
The issue for Yoder may be that he doesn’t have another event where he’s definitely contributing a team final score. It’s really difficult to put someone on a team of five for only one piece because it means everyone else has to be good on pretty much all the events.
The other factor is that the top US all-arounders right now are better on pommel horse than they used to be. If you’re set with a Mikulak/Moldauer/Kimble lineup on horse (and the US has sent many weaker PH lineups to worlds before), then using a remaining spot for a PH specialist may not be a priority.
Yoder’s mission for nationals will be to hit both days and show that he can legitimately score a point better than Moldauer’s hits—or that he’s a far less terrifying option than using Kimble.
When it comes down to selection, if the committee is comfortable with Mikulak, Moldauer, Kimble, and Whittenburg, then it may be left deciding whether to use the fifth spot to boost the team on pommel horse or high bar (the non-Whittenburg events). Yoder will want to show that his pommel horse score delivers more than any of the possible high bar options.
One to keep in mind, particularly if Whittenburg is not at full strength and isn’t up to the selection standard quite yet, is Colin Van Wicklen. Van Wicklen just won the all-around at the national qualifier and has a potentially huge vault, solid difficulty on floor, and a reasonable D on high bar (which has to be taken into account for anyone who has it, even if he also tends to score 13s). If Whittenburg is in form, a gymnast like Van Wicklen is probably rendered redundant, but if not, the US will be looking for someone to deliver power routines.
There are certainly others to keep an eye on (I’m giving you a lot of assignments because I believe you can handle it) including perennial guys-who’s-here Donothan Bailey, whose typical outlook is to be close to the required score on a bunch of different events, particularly pommel horse, but never quite standing out enough or consistent enough to have “TAKE ME, TAKE ME” scores.
Allan Bower has become the little engine that could this quad, using his ability to hit solid, medium-difficulty routines on most events to take second place in the all-around at nationals last year. His evenness may once again lead him to a strong AA placement at nationals this year, but it’s difficult to see where he would fit into a five-person team in the current landscape.
I’d also put fan favorite Sean Melton in this category. If the biggest contenders are hitting, his scores aren’t going to make a mark, but he is capable of placing well (he finished 5th at Winter Cup), is a delight to watch, and hey, if you need a rings score…
A couple other gymnasts who may not be on your radar but are worth checking out at nationals are Shane Wiskus and Robert Neff. Wiskus finished second AA at NCAAs this year (behind Moldauer and ahead of Yoder), and while he probably falls into that Bower category when trying to match his routines up against the very top elites, he did break the 14 mark on high bar at Winter Cup. Plus, if you go through the US men’s elite results this year and do the same process I do with the women’s National Team Rankings, Wiskus would make the USA’s best-scoring team of five. I’m not reading a ton into that, but it certainly makes him worth keeping on the list for now.
Concerns over who can deliver a third high bar routine are also why I would keep Robert Neff in mind. Neff finished 7th AA at Winter Cup, showed a 5.9 D on high bar, and easily posted the highest HB score at NCAA nationals this year, which should keep him in the company of options as well.