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In Search Of A World Title, Gymnast Alec Yoder Headed Back To Japan

By Blythe Lawrence | Oct. 19, 2021, 12:56 p.m. (ET)

Alec Yoder competes in the men's pommel horse final at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 1, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

Alec Yoder is the first to admit that part of him wants a break. But just weeks after the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the gymnastics world championships in Kitakyushu, Japan, beckoned, offering something even more tantalizing than a tropical beach: another chance to stand on a major podium.

So the 24-year-old Yoder, an Indianapolis native who finished sixth on his specialty pommel horse at the Tokyo Olympics, is happy to postpone the R&R and pull on the stars and stripes on another trip to the far east. Japan is as extreme as pandemic travel gets, with lots of paperwork, lots of testing and very little sightseeing, but Yoder is happy to go back.

The goal? Simple.

“To win,” he said. “Obviously any time I compete the goal is to win. That’s what I train for. I don’t train to have fun, you know what I mean? I train to bring home a medal for my team. That’s my goal, but at the end of the day all I have to do is just hit my routine.”

Which may be easier said than done. Yoder’s main event is pommel horse, which is sometimes described as the men’s equivalent of the balance beam because staying on can be so tenuous. With a few exceptions, good pommel horse workers in the U.S. have historically been scarce, making Yoder’s kind a valuable commodity. 

Big as the pressure at a world championships and Olympics can be, in the U.S. making the Olympic team was even more fraught for Yoder, a former basketball and football player who first drew attention as a teenager when he won all-around bronze at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games.

In the run-up to this summer’s Olympics, the U.S. had two pommel horse specialists — Yoder and Stephen Nedoroscik — but due to the limited number of places on the team, it was understood that the Americans would send only one to Tokyo. Yoder won the spot in a hard-fought duel with Nedoroscik that played out throughout the U.S. championships and Olympic trials. Both men will compete in Kitakyushu, along with Yoder’s Olympic teammates Yul Moldauer and Brody Malone, veteran Donnell Whittenburg and newcomer Alex Diab.

The American men compete in the qualifying round Wednesday. After the men’s all-around final Friday, the competition wraps up with individual apparatus finals on Saturday and Sunday, with pommel horse set for Saturday. The top 24 all-arounders and top eight on each event in qualifying — with a maximum of two per country — advance to the respective finals.

Yoder travels to Kitakyushu with the distinct advantage of having lived the experience of an Olympic final, though he doesn’t think it was the most difficult thing he did this summer.

Alec Yoder celebrates with his family following the men's competition at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials on June 26, 2021 in St Louis.

 

“The pressure at Olympic trials was bigger,” the former Ohio State star said.

He found a way to turn the circumstances to his advantage; by the time he got to Tokyo, he felt like he had scaled most of the mountain, which along with the numbers in the gym fueled his confidence.

One of his best attributes, he says, is his reliability.

“I pride myself on being able to deliver when the pressure’s on. I look forward to those moments; they’re what I’ve trained for my whole life,” he said. “I think confidence and the ability to compete under pressure comes from proper preparation. If you’re scared to compete I think you haven’t done enough in the gym. So my goal every day is to make sure I don’t leave the gym unless I know that I’ve done what I need to.”

In Kitakyushu, Yoder is likely to run up against some familiar faces, including Nedoroscik, Olympic bronze medalist Kaya Kazuma of Japan and Rhys McClenaghan of Ireland, though not Olympic champion Max Whitlock of Britain nor silver medalist Lee Chih-Kai of Chinese Taipei. The absence of the top two at the Olympics means there is a vacuum at the top is one he hopes to capitalize on.

No U.S. man has ever won the world title on pommel horse; the country’s highest finish was a silver medal from the late Kurt Thomas back in 1979. Yoder believes he has a shot this year, especially given the hours he’s put in to bridge the relatively short distance from Tokyo to Kitakyushu.

“If I go to a competition and I salute my hand I know I’ve put in the work; like, why would I be nervous? I’ve done this routine a million times; I can do it one more time,” he said. “That’s really my mentality: I can do it one more time, I can do it one more time, I can do it one more time.”

Yoder likes testing his limits, and adores the thrill of competition.

“You can’t run and you can’t hide. That feeling can be scary, but I look forward to those moments,” he said. “I love the pressure. I love the ability to salute and compete for my country. I’m so thankful for that opportunity.” 

Any time he gets that chance, he’ll pack his bags.

“That’s why I do it, to be the best in the world,” he said. “No better chance than right now to show that.”

Blythe Lawrence

Blythe Lawrence has covered three Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. Follow her on Twitter @rockergymnastix.

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