By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 18, 2017, 2:25 a.m. (ET)
Yul Moldauer competes in the floor exercise at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Men's Gymnastics at Chafitz Arena on June 23, 2016 in St. Louis.

 

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Yul Moldauer knew he was being watched.

Not only did the 20-year-old come into this week’s P&G Gymnastics Championships as a favorite to win his first national title, but he also happened to draw the first routine of the first day of competition on Wednesday night.

So as he chalked up the parallel bars ahead of his routine at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, Moldauer leaned on his mental strength.

“What I imagined was an empty arena and just me on the event,” he said. “That took all my nerves away.”

His mind proved as sharp as his gymnastics, as Moldauer posted the highest score of the night on the event and went on to post top-five scores in the other events en route to the night’s top all-around score of 86.65. That put him 1.95 points clear of second-place Akash Modi going into the second night of competition on Saturday.

Moldauer, a junior-to-be at Oklahoma, came into the weekend as the favorite based in part on his win at the American Cup in March, and in part because four-time defending U.S. champ Sam Mikulak is limited to two events here while he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon. With scores like his 14.7 on parallel bars, which tied Modi for the best of the night, Moldauer is well on his way.

If anyone is to stop him, it would likely be Modi, the Stanford senior and 2016 U.S. Olympic alternate who indeed beat Moldauer at the NCAA championships in April.

However, a shaky pommel horse routine in which Modi swung himself right off the horse left him with a noticeable gap after day 1 while Moldauer got through the night without any major mistakes.

“I’m really happy with how everything went except the pommel horse,” Modi said.

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Moldauer’s Oklahoma teammate Allan Bower was third with 84.45 points, followed by Donnell Whittenburg, another 2016 Olympic alternate, with 84.35.

The gymnasts this weekend are competing both for national titles and for berths into the world championships, which take place Oct. 2-8 in Montreal. The U.S. will bring six athletes, with only one or two being all-arounders. That leaves an opening for event specialists to make their case this weekend.

Two clear standouts on Thursday were 2016 Olympic teammates Mikulak and Alex Naddour.

Mikulak, who was only cleared to perform a full high bar routine on Friday, confidently swung his way to a score of 14.05, which tied for the second best of the night, behind Modi’s 14.2. Mikulak’s score of 14.75 on the pommel horse, his only other event this weekend, ranked third.

Barring catastrophe, the pommel horse competition belongs to Naddour, whose bronze medal last summer at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 was the first Olympic medal for an American in the event since 1984. His pommel horse score of 15.3 was the only score in any event over that topped 15 on Thursday.

Naddour, who is now competing in just two events but by choice, also had a solid 14.7 on the still rings, which was good for sixth.

“It felt good,” Naddour said. “I wanted to get a 15.3 or above — that’s what I think a medal is going to take (at worlds) — and I went 15.3, so I can’t complain there.”

Meanwhile, Eddie Penev is looking to fill the void left by longtime floor and vault stars Jake Dalton and Steven Legendre. He tied for the second best score on both floor exercise and vault.

A fall on pommel horse might have pulled Whittenburg out of contention for the all-around title on Saturday, but he posted the top still rings score on Thursday at 15.0 and the third best score on parallel bars at 13.3.

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.