By Blythe Lawrence | Oct. 19, 2018, 12:23 p.m. (ET)

Alec Yoder competes at U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 16, 2018 in Boston.

 

Alec Yoder knows what it’s like to compete on one of the biggest stages in gymnastics. After all, he got the chance earlier than most.

Four years ago, Yoder represented Team USA at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. As the only American competitor in artistic gymnastics at the Games, the eyes of the U.S. gymnastics community were fixed on the 17-year-old from Indiana. At the biggest event of his nascent career, Yoder rose to the challenge beautifully, winning bronze in the all-around, the U.S.’s first youth Olympic medal in gymnastics.

“I felt like I wasn’t really expected to medal,” Yoder said, “and I felt like I went out and got the job done, and at the end of the day I was super happy with how I did.”

Then came the long wait for another opportunity. 

“It hasn’t been an easy road,” he said. 

In 2015, his first year competing in the senior ranks, he had a shot to become the youngest American national champion in history on pommel horse, but his hand slipped off the apparatus during his final routine, and that dream — and Yoder himself — came crashing down. 

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Undeterred, he kept busy. As an Ohio State Buckeye, he has emerged as the nation’s best on pommel horse, typically the Americans’ Achilles’ heel in international competition. At the Big Ten Men’s Gymnastics Championships in 2016, he suffered a shoulder injury. Though he finished out the NCAA season — with a silver medal on pommel horse and a very respectable fifth-place finish in the all-around to boot — he elected to have surgery to take care of the shoulder problem rather than put it off, knowing the timing would cost him a shot at making the 2016 Olympic team.

He didn’t flinch. 

“I’ll be back better than ever,” he wrote on Instagram, adding a picture of himself flying through his pommel set.

Promise kept. A new chance to show his skills on an international stage finally came his way this past March, when Yoder was sent to an FIG World Cup event in Doha, Qatar. In his first international assignment in four years, the 21-year-old again seized the day, delivering another bronze medal for his pommel horse routine and establishing himself as the U.S.’s new go-to guy on pommel.

Next week, he’ll return to Doha’s vast Aspire Dome as a member of a young and hopeful Team USA world championship team, joining national champion and two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, world bronze medalist Yul Moldauer, 2016 Olympic alternate Akash Modi and Colin van Wicklen as they make a push to put the U.S. back on the team medal podium for the first time since 2014.

As his first worlds approaches, Yoder is ready. 

“This is what I train for, this is what I dream of, this is what wakes me up in the morning,” he said. “I feel more prepared than I ever have. I’ve just been training and training and trying to make this world championships dream come true, and I’m very thankful that it did. It’s a dream that I’m on a team with some of my idols — it’s humbling to be there with these gymnasts.”

The men’s team is cautiously confident heading into the showdown in Qatar. Japan, Russia and China, who made up the Olympic podium in Rio, are expected to contend strongly for the podium in Doha, with Great Britain, the U.S., France and Ukraine a peloton in hot pursuit. But Yoder is among those who believe the Americans could surprise a lot of people at the event.

“I am aware that world championships is going to be a whole different beast,” he said. “But I’m not going to view it as something that’s too big or too daunting.”

And while he’s at it, why not an individual final on pommel as well? In his signature event, Yoder plans to show the most difficult variation of his pommel set. The routine carries a 6.3 difficulty score, on par with the top pommel masters in the world. If he hits it, a spot in event finals — or even more — could be his.

For months now, his focus at practice has been hitting his routines every single time he touches an apparatus. That’s the kind of mindset it will take to succeed when you’re going against the very best.

Yoder knows this. After all, he’s been there before. 

“I believe in myself,” he said. “I feel like my prep with my coaches and my teammates is beyond sufficient. I know I’ve done it before at a hard competition, and I’m excited to do it again, even if it is a competition I haven’t been to just yet.” 

Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.