World bronze medalists Mikulak, Moldauer prep for important season ahead

By Blythe Lawrence

The first win came as a surprise. The second was more nerve-wracking. Now, as he prepares for his third American Cup appearance in as many years, Yul Moldauer remains firmly focused on the ride, not the target on his back.

On March 2 in Greensboro, N.C., Moldauer could become the first U.S. gymnast to win three American Cups in a row since Blaine Wilson did it exactly 20 years ago. Not that Moldauer’s harping on that: the University of Oklahoma senior is a firm believer that to achieve great results, you need to pay attention to everything but the scoreboard.

“You never want to tell yourself you have to win something — you just want to go out there with the best mindset, the best preparation and just tell yourself, ‘Hey, I’m here to do my gymnastics and the results are the results,’” he reflected earlier this week. “I’m going to do my gymnastics and no matter the results, if I do my job, then I’ll be happy with it.”

That’s the plan for this weekend’s Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas, as well as the upcoming American Cup. Fortified by training sessions at that begin at 6 a.m. several times a week (“When you come here, you learn to be a morning person,” Moldauer says of Oklahoma) and the week-in, week-out competition rhythm of the NCAA season, his preparation-based philosophy has already helped him compile an impressive portfolio of results.

At 22, he already owns one U.S. senior all-around title, two NCAA all-around titles, a bronze medal on floor from the 2017 World Championships, and of course, that pair of American Cups from the past two years.

Coming in Moldauer’s first major outing as a top-tier U.S. competitor, the 2017 American Cup title was “a shock,” he said, given that the field included 2016 Olympic all-around silver medalist Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine and Rio Olympic team gold medalist Ryohei Kato of Japan. “We had all these other great guys from all over the world,” Moldauer reflected, “and it was really cool just to be on the floor with all of them.”

Last year, he faced down Olympic gold medalist and multiple world champion Kenzo Shirai of Japan, who had finished well ahead of him in the all-around at the 2017 Worlds. That’s where the routine-by-routine mentality really paid off: Moldauer hit six clean sets and was among the top three on each one. Shirai, brilliant on floor and vault, finished at or near the bottom of the table on pommel horse or horizontal bar. Their results weren’t even close.

To rise to the challenge before him this year, Moldauer has upped his difficulty on floor, pommel horse and high bar, and changed around his parallel bars routine. The nine-man field set for Greensboro includes Shirai again, as well as two-time Olympic silver medalist Marcel Nguyen of Germany and 2016 Olympians Christian Baumann of Switzerland, Bart Deurloo of the Netherlands and Petro Pakhniuk of Ukraine. International standouts James Hall of Great Britain, who finished second to Moldauer last year, and China’s Ma Yue are also slated to compete.

Though the international field is a formidable one, Moldauer’s biggest competition may come closer to home in the form of five-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak, who is back at the American Cup for the first time since 2016. Mikulak, who won the event in 2014, is coming off the best results of his international career at last fall’s World Championships in Doha, Qatar, where he captured a bronze medal on high bar and finished top five on three other individual events.

A 2012 and 2016 Olympian, Mikulak has already filled out his 2019 to-do list. The main item is to break onto the World all-around podium, and winning a second American Cup title would be a good start.

“I don’t need to change anything, maybe just continually work on a few upgrades, and if they come, they come. If not, no worries,” said Mikulak, who has settled on a more laid-back approach to training after several years of stressing himself out before big competitions. “I just need to keep doing what I’m doing, and really just stick to the plan: to not put too much pressure on myself and enjoy it.”

Mikulak took advantage of the post-Worlds break to do a European trip with his girlfriend Mia, visiting Amsterdam, Ireland and Iceland. The getaway helped him recharge, and Mikulak returned to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado refreshed. “You’ve got to get out of your head every once in a while, because it gets stressful and it gets intense,” he said. “To have those breaks shows you that there’s more to life than just gymnastics.” That being said, “after nine days off, we start getting antsy,” he added with a laugh.

Moldauer for one is looking forward to their matchup in Greensboro. One of the main reasons why, he explained, is that he doesn’t see it as a matchup. Extension of the team competition is a better way to describe it.

“In the NCAA, you learn how to compete as a team and you get to compete with your teammates, people that are almost like your brothers,” he said. “I’ve grown up with Sam since I was very young, just watching him be this leader has always been motivational towards me, so it’s going to be nice having him right next to me at the American Cup. Even though it’s individual, we’re still wearing USA on our chests, and we’re still representing our country. We can make it almost like a team competition. We can talk amongst ourselves, saying, you know what, let’s hit two for two on this event, two for two on the next, keep going at it like that.”