August 18, 2017

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Yul Moldauer always believed the time would come when he would be part of the group at the forefront of the U.S. men's gymnastics program.

The irony is now that the time has finally arrived, Moldauer spends copious amounts of energy focusing on not thinking about the stage or the stakes. Standing on the podium Thursday night during the opening round of the 2017 U.S. championships, Moldauer did his best to clear his mind.

So he did what a lot of 20-year-old guys do. He took deep breaths. And he thought about cars.

''Just to get my mind off (the meet) real quick,'' Moldauer said. ''Then, when my hand raises, I trust my training.''

It's working. Moldauer put together six steady routines to open up a sizable gap over reigning NCAA all-around champion Akash Modi and give him some serious momentum in his attempt to lock down a spot on the world championship team this fall.

Moldauer, who won the 2016 NCAA all-around title at Oklahoma and the American Cup earlier this year, posted a score of 86.650, nearly two points clear of Modi at 84.700.

''I'm ready to be one of the bigger guys that the young guys look up to,'' Moldauer said. ''Knowing that worlds is on the line, it's a big deal. But you don't want to let that get to your nerves.''

Moldauer hardly looked nervous while tying for the highest score on parallel bars (14.7) and finishing in the top five on each of the other five events to create some breathing room between himself and the rest of a wide-open field heading into Saturday night's final round.

''I know I can clean up some things,'' Moldauer said. ''It's good knowing I didn't get my perfect routines tonight so I can focus on what I need to fix going into Day 2.''

Modi, an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team, was every bit Moldauer's equal save for a skittish performance on pommel horse. Racing through his routine, Modi hopped off in the middle. He regrouped on rings, showing the kind of mental toughness that can be a valuable commodity in high-pressure situations.

''When I'm doing gymnastics, everything stops,'' Modi said. ''It doesn't matter. I'm just doing what I'm doing. When I was doing my routine on rings, I wasn't thinking about my horse routine.''

Allan Bower, a teammate of Moldauer's at Oklahoma, is third. Donnell Whittenburg, an Olympic alternate last summer searching to regain the form that made him an all-around finalist at the 2015 world championships, struggled on pommel horse but finished with a flourish. His 15.000 on still rings, his final event, was the best of the night and moved him into fourth.

The men's program is in the midst of a generational shift as most of the group that served as the core of the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams has moved on into retirement. Moldauer, Modi and Bower are in the group leading the next wave, though the veterans still hanging around are hardly done.

Alex Naddour, a bronze medalist on pommel horse at the 2016 Olympics, scored 15.3 on his signature event, the best score of the night on any apparatus. Even more impressive? His 14.750 on still rings, a number he put up despite skipping the event for four months to let a strained muscle near his right elbow heal.

Four-time national champion Sam Mikulak, limited to competing on pommel horse and high bar as he works his way back from a torn Achilles, pumped his fist after putting together a solid set on pommels, fueling his hope that he'll be able to contribute at worlds in Montreal in October.

There is no team competition at worlds, only individual events, giving recently named high performance director Brett McClure and the rest of the selection committee plenty of options as it tries to put together the six-man group that will be announced by the end of the weekend.

Naddour said he's already putting the puzzle pieces together for how a world championship team might shake out. He certainly looks like he fits. Modi and Moldauer almost certainly do too. McClure's directness also helps eliminate any sort of gray areas.

''Brett has made it about the numbers,'' Modi said. ''It doesn't matter what you do anywhere else, you have to get the numbers.''

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