© John Cheng

By Blythe Lawrence

STUTTGART, Germany, Oct. 7, 2019 — The U.S. men will have a place in Wednesday’s team final at the World Gymnastics Championships — and a team at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 next summer.

Led by a strong all-around showing from Yul Moldauer, the Americans accumulated 250.359 points in Monday’s team and individual qualifying round, qualifying seventh into the eight-team men’s final behind perennial powerhouses Russia, Japan, China, as well as resurgent teams from Ukraine, Great Britain and Switzerland.

And there’s plenty of room for improvement, too.

What was expected to be a feel-good qualification round briefly became a suspense thriller due to unanticipated falls. Sam Mikulak sat two of his floor-exercise tumbling passes and dropped off the pommel horse and parallel bars later on, and Moldauer and Akash Modi also recorded one fall apiece, on pommel horse and high bar, respectively.

“I never woke up,” Mikulak said. “That’s the best way I can put it. I thought I was doing everything right. I just felt so heavy and sluggish today. All these trainings leading up to today, I felt fresh and light and strong. Today my feng shui was not where I wanted it to be. It’s so extreme that it’s not really something I can dwell on. I can just focus on all the good routines and good training I did going forward.”

Several things did go well for the six-time U.S. champion, who rebounded with strong peformances on rings, vault and high bar, where he closed out the day with 14.866 points, the U.S.’s highest number of the competition, which earned him a ticket to the event final for the second consecutive year. Mikulak was also the second-highest scoring American overall with 81.598, far lower than he’s capable of, but still enough to grab the last spot into the all-around final. Only the top 24 men make the all-around final, but Mikulak, who finished 27th in qualification, advances because three gymnasts who placed higher than him will not compete due to the maximum two-per-country rule in finals.

“If I had to pick one event to make finals on, it was definitely high bar, so I was just happy that I finally lived up to my expectations and my potential,” said Mikulak, who won a World bronze on high bar in 2018. “Unfortunately, it took so long for me to finally do that, but I got one [good one] in there, and that’s the standard I can set going forward.”

With Mikulak struggling, Moldauer, Modi and first-time World competitors Shane Wiskus and Trevor Howard provided the padding the U.S. needed to keep the team’s momentum going. Moldauer, who was held back by a virus earlier this summer, had the best day overall, qualifying to the all-around final in 11th place with 82.898, including the team’s best score on floor (14.466), where he is the second reserve for the final.

“Not bad and not good, but something we needed,” is how Moldauer assessed the U.S. men’s day. “I know that’s weird to say, but I think the guys needed to go out there and feel the nerves and feel the crowd,” he added. “It’s not like we’re walking into finals like, ‘Oh, we did well in qualifications, we got this.’ You never want to go out with a bang in qualifications. You don’t win medals on qualification days. Now we have some things to go back and really focus on. It’s something nice to know that you can do even better going into the finals. All we need to do is literally reset, rest our bodies, and go out and perform. We’re not going to compete. We’re going to perform.”

Howard contributed the highest rings score with 14.033 and Wiskus chipped in the second highest numbers on floor (13.466), pommel horse (12.866) and high bar (14.166).

“It all came together for this qualifications routine,” said Wiskus, who said his high bar routine was his best effort since August’s U.S. Championships, when his miraculous one-armed catch on a Cassina went viral. “I went up and didn’t feel any nerves. It was a great first World Championships for me. We still have another day yet to go, but for going out there and competing four events and hitting four routines, it’s all I could ask for.”

While Olympic qualification was never really in doubt — the top nine teams, barring already-qualified China, Russia and Japan, will advance to Tokyo — the team final did at one point did seem like something that had to be earned, rather than a given. The U.S. men have been in every team final since 2006.

“We definitely looked rough, but I would rather have that today and make finals and us just kill it, and I think that’s really what we’re going to do,” said Howard. “A lot of jitters that we don’t normally make in the gym, and I think that it was great that we got it out today so that when people see us on Wednesday, it will be really a shock to see us really perform.”

Modi too is feeling confident. “I’m not going to make that mistake again,” he said of undercooking his high-bar dismount. While some, including Mikulak, don’t look at the scoreboard, Modi can’t keep his eyes off it. “I love following the scores. I was looking at them the whole way,” he said.

The team final — and a chance for some redemption — awaits. Mikulak for one is already looking forward.

“I know what everyone’s capable of,” Mikulak said. “I know what I’m capable of, and I think this is a day when you’ve just got to chalk it up, leave it behind you, because we’ve trained so much better than this. I’m looking forward to the next opportunity, the next chance to show my true potential to the world.”