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 10-15 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 two-point lead heading into the finals of the U.S. 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 171.600, a full point better than Bower and nearly two points clear of 2016 Olympic alternate Donnell Whittenburg to all but assure himself of a spot on the world championship team when it is unveiled on Sunday.
“I'm definitely still a little shocked,” Moldauer said.
Maybe he shouldn't be. Moldauer, the 2016 NCAA champion, began the year with an impressive win at the American Cup in March. 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,” Modi said. “I just wasn't really `on.’ I didn't attack.”
Olympic bronze medalist Alex Naddour likely locked up a spot on the six-man world championship team with a 15.250 on pommel horse, his signature event. Naddour made an “I see you” gesture after nailing his dismount on pommels, a nod to the rest of the field that awaits at the world championships in Montreal in October.
“Wanted to let them know I'm coming for them,” Naddour said. “It's not going to be easy this year.”
Baltimore’s Donnell Whittenburg (Edgewood) went through another uneven night but finished with a flourish, posting a 14.850 on still rings and a 15.000 on vault to surge past Modi and into third. The importance of reaching the all-around podium wasn't lost on Whittenburg, a stunning omission from the Olympic team last summer. He's finally ready to put the disappointment behind him.
“I definitely feel the confidence and the energy going up for me,” Whittenburg said.
Two-time Olympian and four-time national champion Sam Mikulak, recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, 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. 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 in prelims. 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,” Moldauer said. “I have five other events I can make points on.”
And he did, putting up a 14.950 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.”