Who makes the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team for Tokyo?

2021 U.S. Gymnastics Championships - Day 1
Getty Images
1 Comment

The U.S. Olympic Trials for men’s gymnastics, which begin Thursday, mark the end of one generation and, perhaps, the beginning of another.

Sam Mikulak, a record six-time U.S. all-around champion, competes at his final Olympic Trials and likely the last domestic meet of his career. Mikulak, who plans to retire later this year, is the only man in the field with Olympic experience.

The Opening Ceremony is in exactly one month.

Since Rio, two other men emerged to challenge Mikulak. First in 2017, Yul Moldauer, who won that U.S. all-around title when Mikulak was injured and then a world championships bronze medal on floor exercise later that year.

Then, three weeks ago, rising Stanford senior Brody Malone won the all-around in his first senior national championships. He was the first male gymnast to accomplish that feat in more than 35 years.

The U.S. Olympic team of four men, plus a fifth for individual events only, will be named after the second day of competition on Saturday. The all-around champion clinches a spot. The second-place finisher does, too, provided he finishes in the top three on three of the six apparatuses.

The rest are chosen by a committee looking to build a team to bridge the gap to Olympic medal favorites Russia, China and Japan.

A look at 10 contenders …

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

Had the same record as Simone Biles in U.S. Championships all-arounds up until three weeks ago, when he finished third. Mikulak, in his first meet since March 2020, was a rusty seventh on the first day at nationals. There was concern that his status for the Olympic team was something other than a lock. But then he had the best score on the second day, and all was well. Mikulak suffered elbow and wrist injuries during the pandemic and put a limit on his ability, saying he can’t exceed where he was in previous years. That should still be enough to make this team. He can be internationally competitive on high bar, where he earned world bronze in 2018. At 28, the end is near. He is trying to become the first U.S. gymnast to compete in three Olympics since Blaine Wilson in 2004.

Yul Moldauer
2017 U.S. all-around champion
2017 World floor exercise bronze medalist

All-around silver medalist at the last three nationals. Moldauer, too, has dealt with injuries in this Olympic cycle, but he has been the most consistent American throughout. Reliability is key considering the Olympic team event roster cut from five to four, putting a greater emphasis on all-arounders. Born in South Korea, adopted as an infant. He learned from 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Sasha Artemev as a kid in Colorado. Then matriculated at the University of Oklahoma and was guided by Mark Williams, the USA Gymnastics Hall of Famer who coached a man to each of the last four Olympics.

Brody Malone
2021 U.S. all-around champion
Two-time NCAA all-around champion

Competed in rodeo — team roping, to be specific — as a kid in four-square-mile Summerville, Georgia. Then flourished as a gymnast at Stanford (13 square miles), while still enjoying frog gigging on trips home. Malone won the 2017 U.S. junior all-around, then missed nationals in 2018 (transition to college) and 2019 (competed at Pan American Games). Still proved himself in big meets, becoming the third freshman to win an NCAA men’s all-around after Mikulak and Moldauer. On the second day of nationals earlier this month, competing with a lead, he bent but didn’t break, posting the second-best score to win by a comfortable 2.75 points overall.

Shane Wiskus
2019 World Championships team member
Three-time NCAA all-around silver medalist

A favorite to make the Olympic team at the start of the year. Malone’s ascent complicates matters. Wiskus finished ninth at nationals, but he was second going into the 11th of 12 events before falling three times off the high bar. At 2019 Worlds, where team event sizes were five, he was the fourth-most-used U.S. gymnast after Mikulak, Moldauer and Akash Modi.

Akash Modi
2016 Olympic alternate
Two-time world championships team member

Trying to make his first Olympic team at age 26. Only Mikulak and Moldauer performed on more events in the world championships team final in 2018 and 2019. Since 2016, has placed between third and sixth in the all-around at every U.S. Championships. Modi was sixth at nationals three weeks ago, so he needs a strong performance at Trials.

Brandon Briones
2021 U.S. all-around fourth place
2021 NCAA all-around bronze medalist

The Robin to Malone’s Batman this year, both as a Stanford teammate and as a revelation at nationals. Tied for second on the first day of nationals, then dropped to fourth as Mikulak and Moldauer improved significantly on the second day. Still had a full point cushion on fifth place Allan Bower. If, so far, nationals is this most important meet in the committee’s eyes for the four team event spots, then Briones is right in the mix.

Allan Bower
World championships alternate in 2018, 2019
2017 U.S. all-around silver medalist

Just missed each of the last three world teams but the only man other than Mikulak, Moldauer and Malone to finish top two in a nationals all-around this Olympic cycle. In the middle of a medical school admissions process and planning to get married in December.

Stephen Nedoroscik
2021 U.S. pommel horse champion
Two-time NCAA pommel horse champion

Prevailing notion is that the one Olympic spot for individual events only will go to a specialist on one event, and likely pommel horse. Nedoroscik, who competes in rec specs, was in contention to earn an Olympic spot for himself via the apparatus World Cup series early in 2020, but was done in by the pandemic wreaking havoc with the final qualifying events. The Penn State electrical engineering graduate may be in the driver’s seat after winning his first national title on pommels.

Alec Yoder
2018 World Championships team member
2021 U.S. pommel horse silver medalist

Finished a scant .15 behind Nedoroscik at nationals on pommel horse, combining scores from two days. Their head-to-head battle, potentially for that individual Olympic spot, may turn out to be the most compelling men’s storyline at Olympic Trials. After winning the 2018 U.S. pommel horse title and making the world team, fell off the horse at 2019 Nationals on day one, then withdrew with a shoulder injury. Nedoroscik since gathered momentum, but Yoder was right with him at nationals.

Donnell Whittenburg
Two-time world medalist
2016 Olympic alternate

Only man at Olympic Trials other than Mikulak who owns multiple world championships medals, though they are from the previous Olympic cycle (2014 and 2015). In 2016, Whittenburg was fourth in the all-around combining scores from nationals and the Olympic Trials, but left off the five-man team. Wasn’t called up when John Orozco got hurt, either. If Whittenburg can show the vault form that earned a 2015 World bronze medal, he can be in the running for the individual Olympic spot.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara

Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)

There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!