For Moldauer, a third American Cup, taken with charm

A precise Yul Moldauer captured his third straight American Cup Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina, becoming the first gymnast since Blaine Wilson twenty years ago to three-peat at the most prestigious international competition held in the U.S. each year.

Moldauer took advantage of a flare up of inconsistency by five-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak to lock down victory at the American Cup by a thrilling 0.001 margin. But while Moldauer walked off the winner, he spent much of the day chasing two-time Olympian Mikulak, the gymnast who really controlled the meet from start to finish.

The early rounds certainly belonged to Mikulak, who jumped out to a healthy lead after one of the best floor routines of his career, sticking every tumbling pass cold. The 26-year-old followed with excellence on pommel horse (superb Busnari) and rings (stuck double double tuck dismount) before flagging in the latter half of the competition. A small hop to the side on his Kasamatsu 1.5 twist vault was no big deal, but a blown Bhavsar on parallel bars that left him sitting on the rails ever so briefly one routine later was a more serious fault.

Mikulak’s mistakes opened the door for Moldauer, who gathered momentum as he moved from one event to the next. Unable to match Mikulak’s difficulty on pommel horse or high bar, the energetic 22-year-old made up for it with stellar execution on every apparatus. His stuck Kasamatsu 1.5 twist vault was the turning point in the competition, and he took the lead after a brilliant parallel bars routine capped by a stuck double front half out dismount and one of his more enthusiastic shows of delight at hitting his routines, involving a trademark signoff involving yelling, fist pumps and a salute.

Despite Moldauer’s best efforts, Mikulak had a good chance to reclaim the lead on high bar, his best apparatus and Moldauer’s worst. So it was Mikulak who gave the game away when he was unable to complete a Tak half on high bar after catching Cassina and Kolman release skills that gave the game away. Truly in control of his fate for the first time all day after Mikulak’s error, Moldauer put his foot on the gas, turning in the best high bar routine he’s capable of and taking a calculated risk in throwing a triple twisting double layout dismount. It paid off.

“Mentally I felt like I was in all the right places,” said Mikulak, who posted top five finishes with the U.S. team, in the all-around and on pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar at the 2018 World Championships in Doha. “There are just a couple of things we need to refine over the next couple months. A couple more numbers and I’ll be right there.”

“It was fun,” added the humble Moldauer, who is always quick to praise Mikulak’s leadership qualities. “We said we were going to make it an exciting meet, and I thought it was a great meet.”

The anticipated Moldauer/Mikulak matchup might have been interrupted by Kenzo Shirai, the only competitor in the field capable of challenging the Americans in terms of difficulty score, had Shirai not sustained an ankle injury minutes before the competition began and withdrew. In lieu of a real challenge from European all-around bronze medalist James Hall of Great Britain (fifth) or Olympians Petro Pakhnuik of Ukraine (fourth), Christian Baumann of Switzerland or Bart Deurloo of the Netherlands (sixth and seventh), 2014 Youth Olympic silver medalist Ma Yue of China emerged as the bronze medalist. Ma, who was little-known before this meet, who took full advantage of his first world cup all-around stage to nab a podium finish.

Before the day was out, Ma, seemed to have embraced the fuel-injected, NCAA-style approach to serious international competition espoused by Mikulak and Moldauer dubbed the “University of America” by commentators. As the competition went on, Ma celebrated his own successful routines and stuck landings with an enthusiasm that grew less bridled with every event.