Rising star Malone headlines men’s Olympic gymnastics team

Japan 2020

Brody Malone celebrates his performance on the still rings during the men’s U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials Saturday, June 26, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Brody Malone tried to block it all out. The stakes. The scores. The noise. His ears wouldn’t cooperate.

So yeah, Malone knew exactly where he was in the standings at the U.S. Olympic Trials on Saturday In the lead. In control. And comfortable.

Good thing, because the 20-year-old with the soft southern drawl that betrays his Northwest Georgia roots better get used to it. He’s probably going to be there for a while.

Equal parts stoic and spectacular, Malone put on a command performance while racing to victory and the automatic berth on the Olympic team that came with it. Malone’s all-around total of 171.600 was a good three points ahead of Yul Moldauer and the rest of the field.

Perhaps just as importantly for an American team that’s looking to scratch its way onto the podium in Tokyo next month, Malone seemed immune to the circumstances. It was hard to tell at times if he was in the middle of the meet of his life or just putting in another solid training session back at Stanford.

“What a stud,” U.S. men’s high-performance director Brett McClure said. “I mean, he competed with ice in his veins. He just looked unshakable.”

A mindset Malone hopes to carry with him to Japan. Even as his lead grew and his spot became all but assured, Malone tried to stay in his “bubble.” The only real show of emotion coming after he stuck his dismount on rings, when he pumped his arms three times as he made his way off the mat, the Olympic goal that first seemed tangible following his first NCAA title in 2019 finally a reality.

Malone headlines an Olympic team that is a mixture of fresh faces and veterans who know exactly what to expect while competing under the unique spotlight provided by the Games.

Sam Mikulak made his third Olympic squad, the 29-year-old six-time national champion overcoming a fall on pommel horse — long his nemesis — to get a nod from the selection committee after finishing fourth.

“This has been the hardest year to make ever for my life,” said Mikulak, who has been very candid about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected his mental health. “I would say this is probably the most (meaningful Olympic berth). The one that feels the hardest.”

Yul Moldauer, the 2017 national champion and a three-time world championship team member, earned an automatic berth by finishing behind Malone and in the top three on three disciplines with an energetic display of both technique and emotion.

Shane Wiskus’ gamble of leaving the University of Minnesota to train at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center last fall after the Gophers opted to cut their program following the 2021 season paid off. Wiskus bounced back from a rough finish at nationals in which he fell three times on high bar to claim third.

“I’ve just been through the wringer and I kind of told myself that, ‘You know, I’ve been through enough and I’m ready to kind of show what I can do at this competition,’” Wiskus said. “So, man, it’s just been a crazy year and you just can’t make this stuff up.”

Alec Yoder, who terrifyingly flew head-first off pommel horse at the 2015 national championships, earned the “plus-one” specialist spot by overcoming a bit of nerves with a pommels routine that impressed the selection committee with its difficulty.

Brandon Briones, Cameron Bock, Akash Modi, Allan Bower and Alex Diab will serve as the alternates.

The Americans have slid back to the middle of the pack internationally in recent years. The men’s program hasn’t medaled at a major competition since earning bronze at the 2014 world championships. The program’s last Olympic medal came in Beijing in 2008, when Malone was still in elementary school and splitting his time between gymnastics and rodeo riding, among other things.

“I’m tired and I know these guys are tired of playing catch up, just trying to get one skill here, one skill there just to be competitive,” McClure said. “And we’re all ready to take that next step to really focus on pushing the difficulty.”

And pushing each other.

“The cool thing about this team is we’ve got to see each other grow up and to watch each other at competitions and to rise when the moments there,” Moldauer said. “So we all know that we can hit under pressure, you know, and we can just move as a unit through one event at a time and it’s going to be exciting.”

All five men competed collegiately, and their selection comes at a time when the sport is faltering at the NCAA Division I level. Minnesota’s program was shuttered after more than 115 years this spring, leaving only six left in the Big Ten.

Wiskus, who still competed for the Gophers while training and studying remotely in Colorado, laughingly said he planned to send “a message or two” to Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle about Coyle’s controversial decision to cut men’s gymnastics.

The NCAA has long been a proving ground of sorts for the U.S. elite program. McClure considered the display by the five men who will represent the country in Japan a pretty good endorsement of the doors the sport can open.

“I think it should send a message to all the athletic directors and university presidents out there that if they’re thinking about adding sports, that gymnastics is thrilling and it breeds excellence, elite and Olympians,” McClure said.

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