Because not only of women’s competition is made the sport of gymnastics, this weekend was time for one of the most important competitions of the year for the American men: the Winter Cup Challenge. This year the Winter cup took place in Las Vegas on February 16th and 18th and was the first competition of 2017 to select the new national team members.
Unlike previous years when the World or Olympic team members and alternate had an automatic place on the national team, in 2017 everyone has to fight for the place, forcing top players to once again prove their worth to team USA. As such, this Winter Cup saw some returning Olympians, tons of NCAA competitors and a few up-and-coming young gymnasts, all hoping to show the team selection committee that they belong on the 2017 national team.
With the final standings resulting from a two-day competition, 20-year-old Yul Moldauer from the University of Oklahoma won the All-Around title with a total of 171.750 after scoring in the high 84s on Thursday and improving to an amazing 86.900 on Saturday. While these might not sound like big scores (both Oleg and Kohei scored in the 92s in Rio), the men have also lost 0.5 in D-score on all events, so a loss of three full points is expected in the all-around scores. Taking that into consideration, Moldauer’s Saturday score would be very close to 90 which was what gymnasts were aiming for last quad. On floor and rings he had a very solid performances both days, scoring in the high-14s and low-15s, respectively, while on parallel bars he had some small issues on Thursday for a low-14 but recovered nicely on Saturday for a 15 with a 9.1 in execution. Unfortunately, his competition wasn’t without mistakes with a fall on pommels on day one and execution problems on high bar both days. Yul had already been showing some of his skill during the last few years of the 2013-2016 quad and now he seems to finally be ready to fight with the big guys and will have his first international assignment in just two weeks at the 2017 American Cup. Hopefully he can continue to improve and help team USA for the next few years.
In second place, after leading the standings for most of the competition, was Olympic alternate Akash Modi from Stanford with a total of 171.050. Modi finished night one is a very good position to win the title after posting great performances across all events which earned him an 86.300 total. However, night two didn’t go so well. On floor he posted in the low-14s, a bit below his first showing, while on pommel horse and rings he actually managed to improve his scores albeit still in the low to mid-14s. Similar to night one, he once again vaulted a very controlled Tsukahara 2.5 for a score in the mid-14s despite his low difficulty (just 5.2 D-score). Parallel bars and high bar, however, were where the real problems came. First on parallel bars, his best event, he was unable to match his Thusday’s performance, scoring 0.6 lower, and then on high bar he missed his hand on the Tkachev with half turn but managed to hang on and avoid a fall. Nonetheless, he was forced to take an extra swing and a kip to return to his routine, scoring just 13.450 to miss the top of the podium. Just like Yul, Akash has been in the scene for a while and was actually chosen as an alternate for the 2016 Olympic team, but now seems to be proving his value as a top player in the all-around. Furthermore, the rivalry building up between him and Yul could bring some very welcome fresh air to team USA which has basically had Sam Mikulak has the uncontested all-arounder for quite a while. They will have a new opportunity to fight it off in just two weeks as Akash as also been chosen for the American Cup competition.
Finally, the bronze medal went to Moldauer’s teammate Allan Bower with a total score of 169.900. A bit more unknown than the top two gymnasts, Bower had a very solid competition, posting all execution scores above 8 and quite a few above 8.5, reaching the podium despite his somewhat lower difficulty. On rings and vault he had very similar performances both days scoring the mid-14s on the two events, while on pommels he managed to improve his mid-14 from Thursday to a 14.900 on Saturday. On floor he posted in the low-14s on night one but a bit lower on night two for a score just below 14. Unfortunately, Bower doesn’t seem to be a bars guys, with both parallel bars and high bar his lowest scoring events. On the first event he posted in the high-13s both nights, while on the second he only scored in the low to mid-13s. If he can improve on those two events, he could become an important player for team USA in the all-around in addition to his pet event, the pommel horse.
Just outside the podium was Olympic alternate Donnell Whittenburg in fourth with 167.450 after pommels and high bar continued giving him grief together with a fall on his Tsukahara 2.5 vault on day one. Funny enough, he decided to compete the more difficult Dragulescu vault on day two and improved his score by almost 1.5 points. Just go for the more difficult choice, man. Seems to work for you. In fifth place was Donothan Bailey with 166.000 after issues on floor and parallel bars, while in sixth was Robert Neff with 163.950 due to struggles on pommels and high bar on night two. Neff’s Stanford teammate Grant Breckenridge was seventh with 163.750 and Hunter Justus from Oklahoma was eighth with 163.500.
I would also like to give a special shout-out to 16-year-old Brandon Briones who lead the first session of qualifications and finished 10th after both days of competition, standing his ground in a sea of professional gymnasts and NCAA guys. Despite his low difficulty (his highest D-score was 5.1 on floor), he went clean on most of his events, with just some issues on parallel bars on night two. Turning 18 next year, Briones could very well rule the Junior scene this year as he prepares to join the older guys in the Senior ranks in 2018. Whatever the future might bring, this was a great experience for him and he did amazing to compete with all the other gymnasts as equals. Hopefully he will up his difficulty as he gets older and completes his transition through puberty and we will be eagerly expecting to see what he can do next.
As for the event standings, these were also attributed according to the total of both days, with just the gymnasts posting the top three scores on each event on day one making it to day two if they didn’t make it through the all-around rankings. On floor, Eddie Penev took the title with a total of 29.950 after posting scores around 15 on both days for his routine including a piked double front half-out, double double layout and a 2.5 twist to front double full. The silver medal went to all-around champion Yul Moldauer with 29.650 for his super high tumbling and amazing flair circles and Akash Modi took the bronze with 28.650 after difficult tumbles but slightly uncontrolled landings. Outside the podium were Donnell Whittenburg in fourth with 28.350, Allan Bower in fifth with 28.200, Alex Diab and Sean Melton tied for sixth with 28.150 and Brandon Briones in eighth with 28.100.
As for pommel horse, the Gold medal went to the 2016 Olympic Bronze medalist Alex Naddour with a total of 30.100 after improving considerably his performance on night two to recover from a third place finish on night one. In second place was Brandon Ngai with 29.550 after posting scores in the high-14s, while in third was Allan Bower with 29.350 after a mid-14 on night one and an amazing 14.900 on night two. Donothan Bailey was fourth with 29.300, while Ellis Mannon was fifth with a total of 29.100. In sixth place was Alec Yoder with 28.700 who was first on night one, only to count a fall on night two. Leroy Clarke was seventh with 28.400 and finally Akash Modi was eighth with 28.300.
Rings brought Yul Moldauer yet another title with a final score of 30.100 after two difficult routines with incredible execution (9.4 and 9.3 in E-score) and capped off with a stuck double double dismount. In second place was Alex Naddour with 29.650 despite boosting higher difficulty than Moldauer, and in third was Donnell Whittenburg with 29.600 after posting the exact same score on both days, 14.800. Sean Melton was fourth with 29.250, also opting to favor execution instead of high difficulty, while Allan Bower was fifth with 28.900. Drew Moling was sixth with 28.400, Trevor Howard was seventh with 28.350 and Akash Modi was once again eighth with 28.250.
As for vault, the standings were determined based on a single vault (instead of the usual two vaults from different families) with both days being added for the final score. Anthony McCallum was then able to capture the title with a total of 29.850 after scoring very close to 15 on both days for his solid Tsukahara double pike. The silver medal once again belonged to Yul Moldauer with 29.450 for his very well executed Tsukahara 2.5, and the bronze medal went to Emyre Cole with 29.400 for his Shewfelt vault (the male version of the Amanar) with a step forward both times. Kanji Oyama was fourth with 29.350, while Allan Bower and Akash Modi tied for fifth with 28.900. In seventh was Shane Wiskus with 28.850 and finally in eighth was Donothan Bailey with 28.550.
The parallel bars brought yet another Gold medal for Yul Moldauer with a total of 29.300 after recovering nicely on night two from a somewhat shaky routine on night one, both capped off with a great double front half dismount. Mimicking the all-around competition, Akash Modi was again a close second with 29.100 after some issues on night two brought his score down to the low-14s. Considerably behind the top two gymnasts, Sean Melton was third with 28.000 after scoring exactly 14 on both of his routines and Hunter Justus was fourth, missing the podium by just half a tenth. Despite his very high difficulty (6.5 D-score), Donnell Whittenburg didn’t manage more than fifth place after some serious execution issues both nights proving that going clean is more important than boosting big skills. Allan Bower was sixth with 27.650, Robert Neff was seventh with 27.550 and eighth place was shared between Shane Wiskus and Kanji Oyama with 27.050.
The last event, high bar, was won by Chris Brooks with 29.550 after opting to compete just on this event at this meet. Boosting the highest difficulty of the bunch, Brooks also showed the best execution on this event and took the title by the widest margin of the competition (over 1.5 points). In second place was Akash Modi with 27.850 after an unfortunate miss on his Tkachev half on night two caused him to score nearly a point below his Thursday performance. Beyond this point, it was a festival of ties. Donothan Bailey and Grant Breckenridge tied for third place with 27.700, Levi Anderson and Sean Melton tied for fifth with 26.950 and finally Allan Bower and Donnell Whittenburg tied for seventh with 26.900.
Unfortunately, gymnastics is not only made of positive moments and this competition was no exception as injuries also made an appearance. Initially, 2016 Olympic team member Jake Dalton injured his knee during warm-ups and was forced to miss the competition to recover. And later on four-time national champion Sam Mikulak, who was competing for the first time since the Rio Olympic Games, started his day on floor and completely balked on his triple twist dismount, doing a simple back tuck to his back while grabbing his left ankle which was already heavily taped. Coaches and paramedics immediately rushed to him as it was clear that something serious had happened. Later on, USA gymnastics announced on twitter that he suffered an Achilles tendon injury and that he will no longer be competing at the American Cup and the Stuttgart World Cup. He had surgery soon after and is now resting his body before starting rehab. This is very sad news for Sam who has been helping team USA so much for the last five years but hopefully he will recover in time for the national championships in August and fight for a place on the World team.
Overall, this competition served its purpose of showing the current level of USA male gymnasts at this point in the season and 15 athletes were chosen for the 2017 national team, including injured Sam Mikulak and Jake Dalton who petitioned onto the team. While some gymnasts are still taking it slow at the beginning of the season, others proved they are ready to compete at the highest level and should be considered by the selection committee for international assignments alongside the bigger names of the team. Hopefully these new guys will bring some much needed fresh air onto the USA men’s team and improve their depth in order to make them more competitive domestically and internationally.