ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Yul Moldauer is a grease monkey at heart. There’s something about having a tool in his hands and a problem to solve that speaks to him, a hobby he picked up from his father while growing up in Colorado.
So when the pressure rises at a gymnastics meet, Moldauer goes to what he calls his “peace zone.” To get there he takes 10 to 15 deep breaths and lets his mind drift away to a garage or a highway somewhere.
The thing is, Moldauer’s current car is pretty reliable and doesn’t require a ton of work. Kind of like Moldauer’s gymnastics.
Staked to a 1.95-point lead heading into second and final day of the P&G Championships on Saturday night, Moldauer overcame a shaky start to hold off Oklahoma teammate Allan Bower and capture the all-around title.
The 20-year-old posted a two-day total of 171.6, a full point better than Bower and nearly two points clear of Olympic alternate Donnell Whittenburg. He leads the six-man team for October’s world championships in Montreal.
“I’m definitely still a little shocked,” Moldauer said.
Joining Moldauer on the world team is Whittenburg, plus Olympians Sam Mikulak and Alex Naddour and other world rookies Marvin Kimble and Eddie Penev.
There is no team event at worlds. Just individual all-around and apparatus finals.
Maybe he shouldn’t be. Moldauer, who in 2016 became the second freshman to win the NCAA all-around, began the year with an impressive win over Olympic all-around silver medalist Oleg Verniaiev at the AT&T American Cup on March 4. Now he finds himself at the forefront of the next wave for the Americans after most of the core of the national team at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics retired.
Not bad for a kid who was so lean when he arrived at Oklahoma that head coach Mark Williams worried Moldauer wouldn’t be strong enough to handle the increased difficulty at the NCAA and senior elite levels.
“It hasn’t been an issue,” Williams said. “This has been earned.”
Akash Modi, the reigning NCAA champion who has developed a friendly rivalry with Moldauer during their collegiate careers, began the night with the best chance at chasing down Moldauer but ended up fourth thanks to significant form breaks on pommel horse and high bar.
“I wouldn’t say it was a terrible day,” said Modi, who professed his love for Taco Bell on NBCSN cameras after routines. “I just wasn’t really ‘on.’ I didn’t attack.”
Naddour, the Olympic pommel horse bronze medalist, locked up a world spot with a 15.25 on pommels. Naddour made an “I see you” gesture after nailing his dismount on pommels, a nod to the rest of the field that awaits in Montreal.
“Wanted to let them know I’m coming for them,” Naddour said. “It’s not going to be easy this year.”
Whittenburg went through another uneven night but finished with a flourish, posting 14.85 on still rings and a 15 on vault to surge past Modi into third. The importance of reaching the all-around podium wasn’t lost on Whittenburg, who was the top U.S. all-arounder at 2015 Worlds but then missed the five-man Rio squad. He’s finally ready to put the disappointment behind him.
“I definitely feel the confidence and the energy going up for me,” Whittenburg said.
Mikulak, recovering from an Achilles tear in February, finished second on pommel horse and third on high bar to make a compelling case to high-performance director Brett McClure that he’s healthy enough to contribute to the world team.
Mikulak’s injury, however, prevented him from competing in the all-around after winning the last four national titles. Mikulak ceded the stage to Moldauer and Modi.
Moldauer talked about the need to just focus on the little picture and not the big one after taking a substantial lead on the first night of competition Thursday. Maybe, but he appeared jittery during the start of finals. He sailed off the high bar on his first event, scoring a 12.8 that briefly opened the door for the rest of the field.
“I told myself it’s one event,” said Moldauer, whose lead dropped to .65. “I have five other events I can make points on.”
And he did, putting up a 14.95 on floor exercise that equaled the best of the night and put him firmly back in control. Needing only to avoid a total collapse on parallel bars to win, he could hear his teammates clapping as he neared his dismount. Moldauer nearly shorted it, his left leg hitting one of the bars on the way down. When his feet hit the mat and stuck, he raced to embrace Williams and celebrate a title that should make him a force in the program as he enters his prime.
While Williams, the Olympic team coach last summer, knows there’s another level for Moldauer to reach. A national championship is an important step in the process.
“He’s got a certain amount of cockiness,” Williams said. “He wants to show people he’s a performer and he can do really good gymnastics.”
The P&G Championships conclude Sunday with the final day of women’s competition (7 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).
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