© John Cheng

By Blythe Lawrence

STUTTGART, Germany, Oct. 3, 2019 — To listen to Yul Moldauer describe his teammates, the U.S. men’s team at this week’s World Gymnastics Championships would make a great cast of superhero comic book characters.

At the center of things is Sam Mikulak, whose eight years of senior-level experience, including two Olympic Games and two Worldmedals, put him at the heart of the story. “Sam is definitely that leader, that role model,” Moldauer says. “But he’s actually a really funny guy.”

A fierce intelligence distinguishes Akash Modi, the wiry engineering student who helped the U.S. finish fourth in 2018. “Akash is just the brains,” Moldauer says. Rings specialist Trevor Howard brings a quiet determination: “he’s kind of like that guy you look at and you’re like, oh man, he’s motivated. He wants it so bad. He does everything he can.”

As the youngest team member, 21-year-old Shane Wiskus is the super-talented newcomer. “Shane, we call him ‘the freshman,’” Moldauer joked. “He’s so young, he doesn’t know what’s going on.” Alternate Allan Bower, meanwhile, is “the brother of the team.”

An intriguing mix of youth and experience, the American men have banded together with Olympic goals in mind. The U.S. men aren’t trying to take the competition by storm at the World Championships — though if they do, that would be okay too. Rather, they want to qualify Team USA to next summer’s Olympic Games. The top nine men’s teams in Stuttgart this week — barring China, Russia and Japan, who qualified last year — will earn their National Olympic Committees the right to send four-man teams to Tokyo.

That should be no problem for the Americans, who surprised some to finish just off the podium last year, less than two points behind Olympic champion Japan. Though they know it won’t be easy, they’d love to do even better this year.

“Our expectation is to put some pressure on the general top three, which would be Japan, Russia, and China,” Mikulak said. The strategy? “Hit routines, stick ladings, be as clean as possible. Put the pressure on them, and if they make some mistakes, we want to be the ones to capitalize on it.”

The mission got off to a good start during Thursday’s men’s podium training, where all six turned in hit practice routines as they acclimated to the big-stage atmosphere of the arena, excelling on floor exercise, still rings, parallel bars and high bar. Pommel horse, often a challenging event for the Americans, was much improved. Vault too was solid, with each gymnast showing a clean Tsukahara with two-and-a-half twists.

As with the 2018 team, all six have experience competing in the NCAA, and all are looking forward to bringing a little of the collegiate fire to the field of play. Mikulak is a Michigan man; Moldauer and Bower pushed each other at Oklahoma; Modi proudly represented Stanford; Howard was a great for Penn State; and Wiskus, entering his junior year at Minnesota, the first Gopher gymnast to make a U.S. World Team in more than a decade.

“Honestly, I expected it to be a little more nerve-wracking,” Wiskus commented following the training. “It felt pretty chill out there. I think the group of guys we have on this team do a really good job at being professional and knowing when to be serious and when to joke around.”

Personality-wise each contributes something different, and their strengths on the apparatus are different as well. Honed by years of experience and more precise than ever before, Mikulak ranked fifth in the all-around last year and took his first individual World medal, a bronze on high bar.

Moldauer, 12th in the world in 2018, will also compete all six events after recovering from a virus that affected his breathing and landed him in the hospital late this summer. Modi pitches in strong pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar routines. Howard is expected to bolster the team score on still rings, and Wiskus will perform on his best events.

“I definitely think this is a team that could surprise people,” said Howard. “We’re winding down to the Olympics, really cutting into details and execution, and I really feel like we could really upset and surprise some people. We’re going to go out and do our jobs, keep our heads down and really grind one routine after the next.”

“We all have confidence in each other that we’re going to hit,” Modi added. “It’s just a matter of how well.”