Yul Moldauer competes in rings at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — Fifteen months ago, at the height of the pandemic, Yul Moldauer and a few of his training partners set up a pommel horse in the garage of their Oklahoma home.
He was training exactly for this moment.
In Monday’s team final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the American men called on Moldauer to kick off the first routine of the evening, which was on pommel horse. And the 24-year-old delivered, his confident flair setting the tone for his teammates to follow with a string of hit routines of their own.
It was a hot streak that lasted until the team’s very last routine, 18 of 18, when Sam Mikulak lost his legs and rolled out of a ground landing. On a night when the Americans weren’t expecting to make it to the podium, unless something unexpected happened from one of the three favorites, the American team made up of Mikulak, Brody Malone, Yul Moldauer and Shane Wiskus ultimately finished fifth, marking the third Olympics in a row. The American team finished in this position.
“We’re just happy to have had a great performance like that,” Mikulak said.
In a dramatic scene that unfolded during the final rotation at the Ariake Gymnastics Center, the Russian Olympic Committee edged Japan by 0.103 points to win the first men’s Olympic team gold medal since 1996. The defending champion ROC scored 262.500 points, with Japan coming next with 262.397 points and China winning the bronze medal with 261.894 points.
USA had been solidly in fourth place for much of the night and looked set to finish that way until his final routine, when Mikulak fell on a floor exercise, his score of 12.133 being the only blemish of an otherwise stellar night for Team USA and allowing Great Britain to slip through the standings. Great Britain finished with 255.760 points against 254.594 for the American team.
“I’ll be honest, my old legs just weren’t ready for this,” said Mikulak, 28, who plans to retire after completing his third Olympics with the individual competitions in the coming days. “But at that point, I was like, ah, what’s it really going to matter? I’m just going to finish this and we’re going to write it down, proud of how it all turned out.
The guys have never been shy about winning a medal, with the ROC, Japan and China having parted ways with the rest of the world in recent years. No other country has reached a podium at a major world championship since the 2015 world championships, and their high starting values mean that even a perfectly executed performance by Team USA probably wouldn’t be enough.
Heading into the team final, the Americans had “nothing to lose,” Wiskus said. A win would require “a perfect encounter,” Mikulak added. “I think it would be a really flawless competition for us and an awful competition for them.”
“Do you believe in miracles?” Moldauer joked. “That’s the approach we’re going to take.”
There was no miracle on Monday night, which Americans witnessed firsthand while touring with the ROC. The Russians took a huge lead halfway through, then held on to clinch victory with an emphatic floor routine by reigning world champion Nikita Nagornyy.
However, winning a gold medal was never the standard this American team held itself to.
“We knew there was no hope,” Mikulak said afterwards.
Instead, American gymnasts just wanted to perform a routine they could be proud of. And they did, starting with Moldauer’s electric opening horse routine.
It was the one he dreamed of in April 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in the United States, and like many parts of the country, the town of Norman, Oklahoma was under an order home stay. Needing a place to train, Moldauer and his former University of Oklahoma teammates Genki Suzuki, Allan Bower and Colin Van Wicklen created one, acquiring a spare pommel horse, among many other equipment, and setting up a makeshift training center in their garage.
“There were days when it was cold and when it was hot,” Moldauer recalled tonight. “Having to train in your garage, where you’re almost kicking the ceiling, it’s pretty crazy. But to finally come here and hit a set like that for the team, it was really good.
The soft-spoken Moldauer, who grew up on a farm in northern Colorado, can give off the vibe of a super cool guy. Nerves were swirling in his body tonight.
“Oh man, I’ve been thinking about that horse all day,” he said, adding that he “passed out” early in the routine. “I knew I had to go out there and start things for the team.”
Those days of solitude in the garage paid off.
Moldauer hit his routine, setting up a series of two more hits from Malone and then Mikulak on what was an awkward event for the Americans at times. They finished the rotation having scored 0.233 higher than Saturday’s qualifying round, when all four gymnasts compete in each event and the lowest score is dropped.
With that save removed and scores reset for the team finals, the Americans went through their first three rotations, beating their qualifying score on rings and vault before falling just short of parallel bars, still their highest scoring event of away both nights. Then they moved on to high bar, where the powerful swing of Wiskus, Malone and Mikulak saw the team improve their qualifying score by two points.
All came on track for a solid fourth place, equal to that of the previous two world championships. Until that is no longer the case.