© John Cheng

By Tim Nash

Yul Moldauer and Sam Mikulak are in familiar territory. The days leading up to any competition are pretty much the same. The only things that change are the location, the name of the event and what’s at stake.

This week, Moldauer, 22, and Mikulak, 26, are in Greensboro, N.C., for the American Cup, a one-day, all-around competition, featuring a mixture of Olympic and World medalists and rising stars to watch in the 18-month lead-up to the 2020 Olympic Games.

Joining them are 16-year-old Grace McCallum, who was a member of the 2018 World Championships gold-medal team, and 15-year-old Leanne Wong, a newcomer to the senior level.

Mikulak sits comfortably on the mat under the parallel bars, chatting with reporters. A veteran of two Olympics, the Colorado Springs resident is chasing his third trip to the Games.

“It’s a chance to get some perspective,” he said about the American Cup. “It’s an experience, a lesson we all have to learn. That’s what it’s all about. The best way to get comfortable in a competition is to compete more often.”

At the American Cup, Mikulak will compete against top international talent, all carrying the same goals and dreams.

“To have more hype and more high-level gymnasts always changes the dynamic,” he said. “When you are in the gym, there are certain stressors and factors and variables that you don’t account for, and you have to start accounting for them more and more.”

Leanne Wong, on the other hand, sits with her coach during one of her relatively new routines, speaking with the media.

“The interview process is new to her, but it is important,” said her coach Al Fong of Kansas City-based Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE). “She is learning all this stuff. This is all new to her, but she is a really smart girl.”

Wong is the reigning U.S. junior champion and competing in her first senior event.

“The only part that is different (at the American Cup) is that one gymnast goes at a time so the whole crowd is watching as you perform,” said Wong, who was a member of the U.S. Team that won the Junior Pan American Championships title. “Once you start your routine, you forget about the crowd. You are thinking about your skills and your routine.”

Wong isn’t expected to have any problems adapting to the senior level. And she did, after all, successfully navigate media day.

“It’s not so bad,” she said. “It’s just that sometimes I don’t know how to answer the questions.”

Moldauer is in his college season at the University of Oklahoma. Two weeks ago, he was in Las Vegas for the Winter Cup Challenge. Last week, he was in Michigan, recording the top all-around score of 2019 and best since 2017. He was a member of the USA’s 2018 World Championships Team.

Being in the midst of his college season could give Moldauer a leg up on the competition in the American Cup.

“You can say it’s an advantage,” he said. “Technically, I’ve only had one outside college competition, but it helps me get in the mode of competition and what it’s like to be out on the floor, so it is an advantage.”

At the American Cup, Moldauer is focused only on performing well.

“I don’t really want to focus on winning or add any extra pressure. I want to treat it like another meet and do my job. I just want to go out and prove that I can hit my routines and be competitive world-wide.”

McCallum was a member of the U.S. Team that won the 2018 World Championships title in Qatar and is in Greensboro for her first individual international event to test herself against the world’s top gymnasts.

“It’s really nice to get more experience in competing and just getting out there and seeing where you’re at,” she said. “I really like pushing myself and getting to my full potential.”

Both McCallum and her coach, Sarah Jantzi, are not quite sure what her full potential will look like, but they are certain that McCallum will work hard to reach it.

“I never have to get on her about working,” said Jantzi of the Twin City Twisters in Champlin, Minn. “She has a great work ethic. She comes in every day with a goal in mind. She wants to be in the gym. She wants to be here.

“She knows when she doesn’t do something well. Sometimes, I’ll tell her something was good, and she’ll be like, ‘No it wasn’t. I’m going to do it again.’ I couldn’t ask for a better athlete to work with.”

McCallum said she just wants to get it right.

“I critique myself a lot,” she said. “I like to see what I need to do to fix something.”