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American Cup gymnastics: Wong thrills, Moldauer wins again

March 2, 2019

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — So much for nerves. Or the adrenaline of making her senior international debut.

Leanne Wong tuned it all out. Solid at the start and confident at the finish, the 15-year-old made a splash at the American Cup on Saturday. Wong topped a field that included Grace McCallum, Canada’s Elsabeth Black and Japan’s Mai Murakami — all with world championship medals at home — to send a message that she expects to be in the mix leading to the 2020 Summer Olympics.

“It’s definitely a steppingstone,” said Wong, who won the junior national title last summer.

One that should resonate with coordinator Tom Forster. He gave the high-profile assignment to Wong to see how she would handle the stage. Wong didn’t just handle it, she thrived. Her total of 56.765 was 0.3 ahead of McCallum and more than a point clear of Murakami and Black, who tied for third in the nine-woman invitational field.

Wong, who lives in Overland Park, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City, tried to treat the first major competition in the U.S. of 2019 like any other meet. It was in one respect: she won. She posted the top scores on both vault and balance beam, undaunted by the stakes. Her elegant beam set — where she is a study in precision on the 4-inch slab of wood 4 feet off the ground — pushed her past McCallum and into first heading into floor exercise.

Needing a 13.633, she put up a 13.933 thanks in part to an aggressive first tumbling pass she finished with 3.5 twists, which she called the highlight of her day.

McCallum, a member of the U.S. team that rolled to gold at the 2018 world championships, was steady throughout the afternoon. She finished second or third in all four events and the Americans’ 1-2 finish offered proof the U.S. dominance in the sport extends beyond superstar Simone Biles. The reigning Olympic and world champion will make her 2019 debut at a World Cup meet in Germany this month.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” McCallum said. “I had a few things that didn’t go really well, but I’m happy.”

Yul Moldauer edged friend and five-time national champion Sam Mikulak by 0.001 to win his third straight American Cup title. Moldauer finished with a score of 85.932 while Mikulak, who made a major mistake on high bar in the final rotation, finished at 85.931.

Moldauer became the third man to win three straight American Cups. He led by 0.432 points heading into high bar but victory was hardly assured. High bar is one of Moldauer’s weaker events. That’s not the case for Mikulak, who won bronze on the apparatus at the 2018 world championships. Yet Mikulak stalled briefly near the end of his routine, a deduction that opened the door up just enough for Moldauer.

Needing a 13.733 to win, Moldauer hit the number on the nose. His set lacks a bit of the high-level risk/reward of Mikulak’s save for Moldauer’s dismount, which is among the most difficult in the world. He staggered ever so slightly upon landing then proceeded to celebrate with a series of fist pumps and salutes.

“It means a lot,” Moldauer said. “I feel like just having someone like Sam and I going just going at each other is going to help us a lot, always knowing we have to get better and better to push each other.”

Mikulak was surprised the margin was so close, joking that the judges were trying to create a “little showmanship.” He felt Moldauer had the far better day overall and isn’t quite sure what happened on high bar.

“It was like nine out of 10 skills were perfect and one uncontrollable thing happened,” Mikulak said. “I still felt like I did a great routine with one uncontrollable thing that happened.”

Yue Ma of China was third. Kenzo Shirai of Japan, a two-time Olympic medalist, withdrew after aggravating an ankle injury leading to the competition.

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