Malone wins first US gymnastics title, with Tokyo in sight

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Brody Malone competes in the vault during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Brody Malone deleted Instagram from his phone after racing to the lead at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, an attempt to cut out distractions as he eyed his first national title.

Consider it good practice. If the 21-year-old keeps performing like this, the distractions around him are only going to increase heading to Tokyo.

Confident from start to finish, Malone overcame a nervous mistake on parallel bars to post a two-day total of 170.700 and stamp himself as the new standard-bearer for the men's program with the Summer Games just seven weeks away.

The victory ended six-time national champion and two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak's long reign. While Mikulak rebounded from seventh to third, the 29-year-old believes he saw a changing of the guard.

“That kid is the future,” Mikulak said. "I’m just this old guy trying to keep up with him now.”

Malone said he wasn't nervous during the opening round on Thursday, saying he felt far more pressure while competing for Stanford in the NCAA Championships in April. Staked to a sizable lead after a polished performance, the nerves returned. He appeared ready to have his advantage slip away after ending up on the mat in the middle of his parallel bars set, his first event during finals.

No matter. He responded by drilling his high bars set, where his 15.050 score was the best of the meet and the second highest on any event.

“(The fall) was the kick in the butt I needed,” Malone said.

Yul Moldauer overcame another miscue on pommel horse to finish second. Moldauer won a national title in 2017 while Mikulak was recovering from injury. He called Malone's victory evidence that the next wave is coming for a program that's spent most of the last decade being led by Mikulak.

“Brody winning, that’s awesome,” Moldauer said. "That shows that there are younger guys in this country that are able to be the top dog right now and when that happens it drives everyone to get better and better.”

Mikulak spent Friday in a long discussion with his sports psychologist after an uncharacteristically off night on Thursday that left him far behind Malone. Competing for the first time in nearly 15 months, Mikulak surprisingly ran out of gas during his final two events. An extended chat with his sports psychologist helped him hit reset.

He came out flying, drilling his floor exercise to start the finals. Minutes later, he came off the pommel horse in the middle of his routine. It would be his only major misstep, a positive development for the lone constant in the U.S. men’s program since he made his first Olympic team in 2012. Mikulak saved his best moment for last, sticking the dismount on his high bar routine before roaring while pumping his fists.

“How do you have fun? I was trying to ask that question,” Mikulak said. “When does this get fun? Well, you have to put on a performance.”

Something Mikulak has done with stunning regularity for the last nine years. His time, however, is coming to an end. He is engaged and ready to get on with the next chapter of his life. The decision to not push toward 2024 has freed him in a way. The rust now hopefully gone, Mikulak is eager to attack the final months of his long career.

The Olympic selection committee is relying strictly on the performance at the trials to determine the five-man team. Malone has spent the last five months making a pretty compelling argument. He helped the Cardinal capture the NCAA team title in April and added an all-around title to bookend the one he earned as a freshman in 2019.

“He’s really great to have in the gym every day,” Stanford teammate Brandon Briones, who finished fourth, said of Malone. “We train with him constantly. He’s always the first one in the gym, last one out.”

Shane Wiskus, who moved from the University of Minnesota to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado last fall, was poised to push for one of the top four spots before a nightmarish turn on high bar in his last event. Wiskus saw his hands slip off three times to drop all the way to ninth. Wiskus wore an ice bandage on his right hand during a portion of the awards ceremony.

Allan Bower, who put off going to medical school for a year after the Olympics were pushed back to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, came in fifth.

The Americans earned “plus one” spot at the Olympics thanks to Paul Juda's second-place all-around finish at the Pan American Championships on Friday. USA Gymnastics high-performance director Brett McClure said the team will likely use that spot on a specialist rather than an all-arounder.

The selection committee will have its hands full. While Malone won the national title by nearly three points, the gap between second and sixth was just 2.450 points.


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