ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Before he begins a gymnastics routine, Yul Moldauer always stops, concentrates and takes 10 deep breaths.
“No matter if it’s the easiest event for you or the hardest, it’s 10 deep breaths,” he said.
It’s a practice that calms his nerves and helps him focus on the task at hand, and on Saturday night it was a tactic that helped Moldauer win his first national title at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in Anaheim, California.
“I think that every gymnast, once they find their key thing to help their nerves is when they can really perform,” Moldauer said.
Moldauer, 20, scored 171.6 points and also posted top-two scores on floor exercise and parallel bars over the two-day competition at the Honda Center.
Allan Bower, who is Moldauer’s teammate at Oklahoma, finished second in the all-around with 170.6 points while Donnell Whittenburg, a 2016 Olympic alternate, was third with 169.7 points, and fellow Olympic alternate and 2017 NCAA champion Akash Modi was fourth at 169.25.
At 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds, Moldauer is hardly the biggest or strongest gymnast around, but the Oklahoma junior-to-be has focused on mental strength and consistent execution to establish himself as this year’s top American gymnast.
“His whole first couple years, that’s all we were doing is, 'let’s grab as much of the execution as we can get,'” Oklahoma coach Mark Williams said.
Williams said they have gradually been adding difficulty to Moldauer’s routines, all the while Moldauer also practices his mental strength through methods like the 10 breaths, or visualizing himself in an empty arena, as he did Thursday knowing that all eyes were on him as not only one of the favorites but also the first gymnast to perform on the opening night.
The formula has worked, as the native of Arvada, Colorado, won his first NCAA title as a freshman at Oklahoma in 2016, and then broke out on the international stage with a win at the American Cup in March, overcoming Ukraine’s Olympic silver medalist Oleg Verniaiev in the process. Although Moldauer finished as runner-up to Stanford senior Modi at April’s NCAA Championships, he came into these national championships with high expectations — and delivered.
“He’s got a certain amount of cockiness, that he wants to show people he’s a performer, that he can do really good gymnastics,” Williams said.
Moldauer opened up a 1.95-point lead over second-place Modi after the first day of competition on Thursday, and although the second night wasn’t as clean — Moldauer fell on a Kovacs release move on high bar and struggled through his dismount on pommel horse — he still finished with a 1-point victory.
The win checked off a goal Moldauer has been working at for years, he said, but his performance and newfound title only drive in the reality of what’s ahead.
On Sunday, Moldauer is almost certain to hear his name called when USA Gymnastics names its six-person men’s team for October’s world championships in Montreal. This year’s world championships have an individual format, with no team title at stake, and Moldauer now must show if he can hold up against the world’s best.
“Knowing that I can be one of the top guys in the U.S. right now really boosts me to become better, because I know I need to be that standard,” he said. “If I’m going to be that top guy, I have to have high standards, so I think it will help my work ethic a lot, too.”
Moldauer also shared the floor exercise national title with Eddie Penev, while Penev and Whittenburg shared the vault title. Other individual event titles went to Olympian Alex Naddour for pommel horse, Modi for parallel bars and Marvin Kimble on high bar. Kimble and Michael Wilner shared the still rings title.
The big one, though, is always the all-around.
With four-time defending U.S. champion Sam Mikulak limited to two events this weekend as he recovers from an Achilles tendon injury, the event was going to end with a first-time champion.
Moldauer wanted that to be him.
“It’s definitely something that’s been on my goal list and my dream list for a long time,” he said. “Now that I can check it off, it’s shocking to me. I’m honestly still in shock right now.”
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.