Yul Moldauer out to early lead at P&G Championships

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Yul Moldauer always believed the time would come when he would be part of the group at the forefront of the U.S. men’s gymnastics program.

The irony is now that the time has finally arrived, Moldauer spends copious amounts of energy focusing on not thinking about the stage or the stakes. Standing on the podium Thursday night during the opening round of the P&G Championships, Moldauer did his best to clear his mind.

So he did what a lot of 20-year-old guys do. He took deep breaths. And he thought about cars.

“Just to get my mind off (the meet) real quick,” Moldauer said. “Then, when my hand raises, I trust my training.”

It’s working. Moldauer put together six steady routines to open up a sizable gap over reigning NCAA all-around champion Akash Modi and give him some serious momentum in his attempt to lock down a spot on the world championships team this fall.

Moldauer, who won the 2016 NCAA all-around title at Oklahoma and the AT&T American Cup earlier this year, posted a score of 86.650, nearly two points clear of Modi at 84.7.

“I’m ready to be one of the bigger guys that the young guys look up to,” Moldauer said. “Knowing that worlds is on the line, it’s a big deal. But you don’t want to let that get to your nerves.”

Moldauer hardly looked nervous while tying for the highest score on parallel bars (14.7) and finishing in the top five on each of the other five events to create some breathing room between himself and the rest of a wide-open field heading into Saturday night’s final round.

“I know I can clean up some things,” Moldauer said. “It’s good knowing I didn’t get my perfect routines tonight so I can focus on what I need to fix going into Day 2.”

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Modi, an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team, was every bit Moldauer’s equal save for a skittish performance on pommel horse. Racing through his routine, Modi hopped off in the middle. He regrouped on rings, showing the kind of mental toughness that can be a valuable commodity in high-pressure situations.

“When I’m doing gymnastics, everything stops,” Modi said. “It doesn’t matter. I’m just doing what I’m doing. When I was doing my routine on rings, I wasn’t thinking about my horse routine.”

Allan Bower, a teammate of Moldauer’s at Oklahoma, is third. Donnell Whittenburg, an Olympic alternate last summer searching to regain the form that made him an all-around finalist at the 2015 World Championships, struggled on pommel horse but finished with a flourish. His 15 on still rings, his final event, was the best of the night and moved him into fourth.

The men’s program is in the midst of a generational shift as most of the group that served as the core of the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams has moved on into retirement. Moldauer, Modi and Bower are in the group leading the next wave, though the veterans still hanging around are hardly done.

Alex Naddour, the Rio Olympic pommel horse bronze medalist, scored 15.3 on his signature event, the best score of the night on any apparatus. Even more impressive? His 14.75 on still rings, a number he put up despite skipping the event for four months to let a strained muscle near his right elbow heal.

Four-time national champion Sam Mikulak, limited to competing on pommel horse and high bar as he works his way back from a torn Achilles, pumped his fist after putting together a solid set on pommels, fueling his hope that he’ll be able to contribute at worlds in Montreal in October.

There is no team competition at worlds, only individual events, giving recently named high performance director Brett McClure and the rest of the selection committee plenty of options as it tries to put together the six-man group that will be announced by the end of the weekend.

Naddour said he’s already putting the puzzle pieces together for how a world championship team might shake out. He certainly looks like he fits. Modi and Moldauer almost certainly do too. McClure’s directness also helps eliminate any sort of gray areas.

“Brett has made it about the numbers,” Modi said. “It doesn’t matter what you do anywhere else, you have to get the numbers.”

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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