Five men’s gymnasts to watch at P&G Championships

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It’s fair to say this week’s P&G Championships heralds a new era for U.S. men’s gymnastics.

In the last six months, four Olympians effectively announced retirements.

That came on the heels of a change in leadership for a program that followed silver in 2004 and bronze in 2008 with fifth-place finishes in 2012 and 2016.

Gone are Jacob DaltonJonathan HortonDanell Leyva and John Orozco, who each made two Olympic teams and combined for double-digit Olympic and world medals. At times, they led squads that challenged world powers China and Japan.

The U.S. goes into this Olympic cycle without that kind of expectation. Not yet, at least.

“I think it’s good for the U.S. team, to be perfectly honest,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said of the lack of familiar faces this week. “It gives some of the younger guys an opportunity to really step up and not be completely in the shadows.”

The year after the Games is all about individual goals. There is no team event at October’s world championships in Montreal.

Six men will be named for worlds either late Saturday night, after competition wraps up, or Sunday. That team should include a new U.S. all-around champion.

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Sam Mikulak, who took the last four national titles, is expected to compete on one or two out of six events at P&Gs. The two-time Olympian is working his way back from February Achilles surgery.

The other Olympian in the field, Rio pommel horse bronze medalist Alex Naddour, is not expected to factor into the all-around. He may focus on horse and still rings.

Mikulak and Naddour can still make the world team without competing on every apparatus.

The all-around “is going to be a three-person race between Yul Moldauer, Akash Modi and Donnell Whittenburg,” Daggett said.

Five men to watch in Anaheim this week:

Sam Mikulak
Two-time Olympian
Four-time U.S. all-around champion

Mikulak, 24, returned to skills training a little more than two months ago. Last month, he competed on one event at a qualifier, falling off the pommel horse. Still, Daggett is confident he will be a contender on high bar and parallel bars come world championships, seeking his first individual medal.

“He’s going to be the same Sam, is my guess,” Daggett said. “I’m not that surprised [that he’s back five months after surgery]. I would have been really surprised if he goes and does floor [exercise] and vaulting [this week]. But to take landings, I would say it’s a very doable thing for him to be at this point.”

Alex Naddour
Rio Olympic pommel horse bronze medalist
Two-time world championships medalist

Naddour, the only Olympic medalist in this field, is expected to compete through this Olympic cycle and up to the Tokyo Games, when he will be 29 years old. That’s in part because of a change in Olympic roster makeup that will incorporate two athletes who compete strictly in individual events and not for the team. Naddour’s pommel horse prowess might be enough to get him to 2020.

Naddour eyes his fifth national title on pommel horse and potentially his first on still rings.

Donnell Whittenburg
Rio Olympic alternate
Two-time world championships medalist

Two years ago, the linebacker-built Whittenburg seemed poise to make the Olympic team. He was second to Mikulak at the 2015 P&G Championships and the top U.S. all-arounder at those world championships (eighth).

But Whittenburg dropped to fourth and fifth in the all-around at last year’s nationals and Olympic Trials, moving onto the Olympic team bubble. It burst, and he went to Rio as an alternate.

“He says he’s never going to let that happen again,” Daggett said. “As an athlete, physically, he’s mind-blowing. His biggest challenge is always going to come on both high bar and pommel horse.”

Yul Moldauer
2017 AT&T American Cup winner

The rising University of Oklahoma junior upset Olympic all-around silver medalist Oleg Vernyayev to win the AT&T American Cup on March 4 in his first top-level international meet.

“His gymnastics is as error-free as anybody doing gymnastics right now,” Daggett said. “There have been gymnasts that can do well in the United States, and they just don’t hold up as well on the international front. That’ll never be the case with Yul.”

Akash Modi
Rio Olympic alternate
2017 NCAA all-around champion

Modi and Moldauer have traded victories in head-to-head competitions this year. Modi, who just completed his Stanford career, has the degree of difficulty edge on his Oklahoma rival. It’s just a matter of how clean he can be.

But one wonders if either Moldauer or Modi would have been able to keep a fully healthy Mikulak from a fifth straight national title. Mikulak won all four of his crowns despite never hitting all 12 of his routines at the two-day meet.

“To a healthy and error-free Sam, no, they’re not at that level,” Daggett said. “To be perfectly honest, in my opinion, an error-free Sam, the only person that was really at his level was [Olympic all-around champion] Kohei Uchimura and Vernyayev, I would say — Sam never had a flawless competition, but if he had.”

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MORE: Two-time U.S. Olympian retires from men’s gymnastics

Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

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