Brody Malone competes on the Rings during the Senior Men's competition of the 2021 US Gymnastics Championships at Dickies Arena on June 3, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas.
The U.S. men’s gymnastics program has been waiting for someone to step up and challenge Sam Mikulak’s domestic supremacy.
On Thursday, two Stanford teammates blew past the six-time U.S. champ — and just about everyone else, too.
Brody Malone ranked first while teammate Brandon Briones tied Yul Moldauer for second on the opening night of competition at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas.
Two-time Olympian Mikulak, meanwhile, was a distant seventh after a fall on the parallel bars and an overall shaky night in his first competition in 15 months.
National champions will be named Saturday based on combined scores from the two nights. The big test, however, comes in three weeks at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in St. Louis.
Mikulak is the only Olympian in the field. The conventional wisdom going into the weekend said the 28-year-old would be again the favorite, with world championships veterans Moldauer and Shane Wiskus early favorites to join him at this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Thursday’s competition doesn’t necessarily change that, but it should vault the Stanford teammates into the heart of the conversation.
Malone, coming off his second NCAA all-around title (and seventh overall), opened with a statement performance on still rings, his 14.6 marking the top score in the rotation, and never gave up the lead, finishing with an all-around score of 86.25.
He ended the night tied for first on vault (14.7) and top two on high bar and rings. The only event he wasn’t among the top four on was floor, where he tied for eighth.
“That’s my goal is to push for the Olympics,” Malone, a native of Summerville, Georgia, said. “So I think after tonight everything went pretty well, I stayed in the zone pretty well and took it one routine, one skill at a time, and everything worked out.”
Briones was similarly sharp through his six routines, ending the night with top-five finishes on floor, vault and high bar. His all-around score of 83.6 tied that of Moldauer, the only other man to win a U.S. all-around title in the last eight years, which he did in 2017, when Mikulak was injured. A former NCAA champion himself while at Oklahoma, Moldauer proved consistent through five events, with the only mistake coming when he put his hand down on horse.
“These small things happen, but it’s not acceptable to me because I’ve hit like 15 pommel horse routines coming into here and that small little mistake tore me apart because I want to prove to the committee that I can hit a full set all the time,” he said.
Wiskus bounced back from a shaky vault in the first rotation to finish fourth at 83.35, including tying for the top score on parallel bars (14.55).
Akash Modi, one of the alternates for the 2016 Olympic team, was sixth at 82.95, followed by Allan Bower at 82.6.
And there, in unfamiliar territory, was Mikulak, who scored 82.45 to mark his lowest placement in a national championships all-around contest.
Coming off an extended break from competition, coupled with major life events such as getting engaged — and then having to go long distance when his fiancee took a job in a new state — Mikulak said fatigue and a lack of confidence caught him off guard.
“I think throughout this whole meet I just could not get into that confident mindset, and I think I was trying to dodge fear most of the time and it kept me in a flight response instead of a fight,” he said.
The highlight for Mikulak came in the third rotation when he hit his high bar set to score 14.75, the top score of the night. However, that proved to be the only event in which he finished better than 10th.
Mikulak, who has been open about struggles with mental health and his work with a sports psychologist, put a positive spin on his situation.
“One thing I’ve got going right now is the bar is set real low,” he said, “so I should be able to improve a lot from this day going into Saturday.”
The subplot to the all-around competition is the potential fifth Olympic spot. Should the U.S. succeed in earning an individual berth to the Tokyo Games, it would go to the gymnast with the most medal potential and who isn’t already on the four-person team.
Several men began making their case Thursday should that spot become available. Stephen Nedoroscik and Alec Yoder finished 1-2 on pommel horse. Their scores were the only 15s of the night, with Nedoroscik going 15.1 and Yoder 15.0. On rings, Alex Diab easily outpaced the field with a winning score of 14.95, while Gage Dyer tied Malone for the lead on vault.
Eddie Penev led on floor (14.75), while Colt Walker tied Wiskus on parallel bars.