By Patricia C. Duffy
Night one of the 2017 P&G Championships was a roller coaster for the men of USA gymnastics.
Feature photo by Grace Chiu.
The premiere USA Gymnastics meet of the year, the 2017 P&G National Championships, kicked off yesterday with prelims of junior and senior Men’s competition.
Night one featured surprises and other not-so-surprising moments.
The night was off to a fun start with games and dance-offs in the audience. The music was just right, and as the men warmed up prior to the start of rotation one, you could tell this atmosphere was different than years past at a U.S. men’s championships. Not a good or bad type of different… just different.
Chris Brooks and Jake Dalton were dressed in regular clothes and interacting with the crowd. Danell Leyva, John Orozco and Jon Horton, all of who retired in the past few months, were also not present to light up the crowd. The only recent Olympians doing so were Sam Mikulak and Alex Naddour, and when their names were called at the start of the meet, the crowd took notice, booming with energy to see someone familiar… someone comfortable.
The truth is, the state of men’s gymnastics in the U.S. isn’t comfortable at the moment, but that makes it exciting. Retired are most of the work-horse gymnasts who were the face of Team USA for the past few quads. Now, new faces will take the stage, with a few familiar ones to keep everyone from completely falling out of their seats.
It’s a new era. Who’s going to lead the way?
Rotation 1 – Naddour shows off his Olympic medal-winning skills
Yul Moldauer got his start on parallel bars, which as the 2017 Winter Cup champion on the event, is a good place to start a push for his first U.S. all-around title. The routine featured sky high releases, spot on handstands and a solid dismount with just a slight hop. His high difficulty score plus a solid execution score resulted in a 14.700 score, which would hold solid as the top score for the night on the apparatus.
Over on high bar, Moldauer’s NCAA rival Akash Modi put together arguably the cleanest routine of the night on the event. Add in a stuck landing, and Modi was off to a good start with a 14.200, enough to secure first on the event for the night.
Nebraska’s Christopher Stephenson posted the highest floor score of the rotation with a 14.350. Despite having a relatively low difficulty score, Stephenson put together a crisp routine with a few stuck landings and a stunning arabian double front (which was one of those stuck landings).
A routine on pommel horse was easily the highlight of the rotation, and that routine was produced by none other than 2016 Olympic bronze medalist on the horse, Alex Naddour. After opting to only compete PH and still rings this meet, Naddour flew through his technically-sound routine making it look easy, even when he did a one-handed 360-degree spin at the open of his routine. It seemed as though he stayed on the pommel handles for the majority of the routine, which he in fact did, and he wrapped the routine with a stuck dismount. It earned him a 15.300, a score that no one would get close to the rest of the night.
The Ohio State men started on still rings, where Trevor Howard showed off his difficulty-packed and beautiful routine. The routine, which scored a 14.750, was easily his highest score of the night.
Lastly, the U.S.O.T.C. men started on vault. Three of the top vaulters in the competition, Kanji Oyama, Eddie Penev and Donnell Whittenburg performed here. Despite competing and being in the lineup, 2015 U.S. vault champion Sam Mikulak sat this one out. Oyama and Penev both scored 14.700s to tie for second on the night. Whittenburg started with his go-to double front to half out vault, which earned him a 14.400 after a -0.1 deduction for stepping on the line.
Rotation 2 – The newcomers and veterans have something to prove
Oklahoma’s Colin VanWicklen showed off his HB skills to start the rotation with a 14.050. His stuck full twisting double layout was one of the highlights of the routine, which would finish the night tied for second with Mikulak’s score (more on that to come).
Modi stayed consistent on FX with a 14.250. The 2017 NCAA all-around champion started with a ton of power, almost too much, and over-rotated his second pass (but avoided a fall). He eventually got control of that power and stuck three of his passes.
Marvin Kimble of Salto Gymnastics began his top two rotations of the night on pommel horse, where he posted a 14.650. It was a score good enough for 4th place by the end of the evening, only behind Alex Naddour, Donothan Bailey and Sam Mikulak. It’s an impressive field to hang with, and Kimble could be one of the keys to adding depth to the U.S. men’s pommel lineup.
SR’s are also an area where the U.S. men need to improve their scores, so Naddour posting a 14.700 on night one was a definite good thing. Even better, his score only earned 6th place heading into finals, which means there’s some serious talent in the SR field, and it’s not just current national team members at the top of the ranks.
The Ohio State University gymnasts struggled on vault during rotation 2. Their highest score came from Sean Neighbarger who posted a 14.000 with his Yurchenko 2.5 vault. The NCAA competitors lack the difficulty necessary to compete against others on the apparatus.
For the U.S.O.T.C. group, Whittenburg led on PB with a 14.450, good enough for 3rd place heading into finals. Whittenburg struggled to stay completely vertical on a few handstands, but his sky high releases and stuck dismount made for a strong overall showing.
Rotation 3 – VanWicklen shines on floor, Mikulak is back
The Sooner’s VanWicklen yet again posted one of the best performances of the rotation with a well-executed routine on his speciality of floor exercise. The 2016 NCAA floor champion, VanWicklen’s style and technique on floor are reminiscent of now-retired Jake Dalton. His consistently clean and near-flawless routine, which earned a 9.000 execution score, was enough to earn him the top spot of the night on the apparatus with a 14.600.
Over on pommel, Modi struggled with his difficult routine. The NCAA pommel horse silver medalist spent the first part of his routine putting together swinging around on the pommel handles, but he couldn’t keep form and ended up coming off the apparatus. The rest of his routine was tight and unclean, but his high level of difficulty kept the score at a 12.750.
Kimble shined again on rings, posting a 14.950 to fall just behind Whittenburg in the apparatus standings.
On vault, Kiwan Watts posted the best vault score of the rotation with a 14.000 resulting from his clean, high amplitude performance. Despite a low difficulty score (4.8), Watts earned a 9.200 for his sound execution.
Sean Melton led The Ohio State gymnasts on PB with a 14.300 on the apparatus. His highest score of the night, Melton would finish in seventh place heading into finals.
On HB, Mikulak performed his first routine of the night. He floated through his three straddle releases and almost stuck his dismount. From his performance, a spectator may not be able to tell he had suffered an Achilles injury in February. His 14.050 would tie for second on the apparatus with VanWicklen, just behind Modi’s top score. To round out the U.S.O.T.C.’s rotation on HB, first-year senior Cameron Bock had a tough outing where he fell on his pike release and then again on his straddled release.
Rotation 4 – Roller coaster rotation for U.S.O.T.C. group
At the halfway point, top players for the individual AA title began to separate themselves from the crowd, namely Modi and Moldauer.
On PH, Moldauer executed a relatively difficult routine, sticking his dismount. He earned a 14.150 to lead his group.
Modi showed off on SR despite tough competition at the top of the standings. His 14.600 was good enough for 7th place heading into finals, but the score was better suited benefitting his all-around score.
The college players on vault struggled to match their counterparts high difficulty and execution scores yet again, but Kyle King’s double front was a highlight of the rotation. King struggled earlier in the evening on pommel horse with two falls, so to post his best score of the night on VT was a step in the right direction to improving for finals.
No athletes separated themselves from the pack on PB during rotation 4, but Michael Reid of Southlake gymnastics posted the top score with a 13.550.
Melton continued his push to remain a contender for the all-around title with a solid 13.800 score on HB. His stuck full twisting double layout dismount was the highlight of the routine.
On floor, the U.S.O.T.C. group featured standout performances from Penev and Whittenburg. Penev’s routine was an obvious showing of his desire to make his first Worlds team, a spot that has long alluded him. Whittenburg struggled in the execution category, almost sitting on his double front first pass, but his high difficulty score (6.4) resulted in a 14.300 score. Penev and Whittenburg’s teammates Donothan Bailey and Cameron Bock both struggled and fell on passes.
Rotation 5 – Experience prevails on pommel horse
Moldauer continued to separate himself from the pack with his SR’s routine. His 14.850 featured incredible feats of upper body strength and flexibility as well as a stuck dismount.
On vault, Anthony McCallum completely over-rotated his double pike vault while Modi posted a consistent 14.200 on his performance with just a slight hop forward.
Kimble struggled with his PB routine, coming off twice during his routine. His 10.500 combined with a 12.000 on floor dropped the gymnast significantly in the all-around standings from an otherwise strong performance on the night.
Jordan Kovach, a gymnast typically strong on HB, fell on his first release, which resulted in him falling to 26th in the rankings on the apparatus. The performance rounded out a rough night across the board for the gymnast from Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy.
Melton continued to make his presence known on floor with a solid 14.200.
The focus of the rotation was on pommel horse, where the U.S.O.T.C. group was competing. By the end of the rotation, Bailey and Mikulak would secure the No. 2 and 3 positions, respectively, in the apparatus standings. Bailey showed that he could stick with Naddour and is ready to try to defend his 2016 U.S. title on the event. While “Highway to Hell” played over the speakers in the arena, Mikulak shined on the apparatus, showing off his superb flexibility and finishing with a stuck dismount. He walked off the stage with a big smile, fist pump to the air and 14.750 score.
Rotation 6 – Moldauer secures the top spot on the night
Moldauer secured his first-place positioning heading into finals with a solid 14.600 on vault. Meanwhile, fellow teammate VanWicklen continued to shine and make a name for himself with a double front to half out with a stuck landing, which earned a 14.800 and his second of two first place positions in the apparatus standings (along with floor) heading into finals.
Where Moldauer started his night, his top competitor ended it, and Modi wasn’t going to go out anywhere but on top. His performance earned the same difficulty and execution scores as Moldauer to tie for the lead on PB with a 14.700.
On HB, Kimble redeemed himself from a struggling performance on PB. He scored a 14.000, enough to push him into 4th behind Modi, VanWicklen and Mikulak in the apparatus standings.
Chandler Eggleston of the University of Illinois posted the highest score of the rotation on floor. Rounding out his night where he only performed on four apparatuses.
Alec Yoder fell off on his performance on PH, slipping off the back of the horse during a relatively good showing on the apparatus. His performance would still be enough to earn him the eighth place position heading into final on Saturday night.
Rounding out the night on SR, Whittenburg posted his top score of the night and the top score on SR with a 15.000. He redeemed himself with the performance after a fall on PH. He stuck his dismount but did not perform “The Whittenburg”, likely playing it safe as he continues to pursue his first all-around title.
Adjusted all-around prediction:
Moldauer is the favorite heading into finals on Saturday evening. With an almost two-point lead, a consistent performance could very well land the 2016 NCAA all-around champion with his first U.S. title, but Modi, Allan Bower, Whittenburg, and teammate VanWicklen are still in the hunt.
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