Brody Malone learned something about handling pressure at the NCAA championships last April. After winning the all-around title at Maturi Pavilion, the Stanford junior felt ready to tackle the next big test, which came Thursday at the U.S. gymnastics championships.
He's now 2-for-2. On a night when errors tripped up several leading contenders, Malone rode a smooth and steady performance to the top of the all-around standings on Day 1 of the men's competition at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. His score of 86.250 was well clear of Yul Moldauer and Brandon Briones, who tied for second with a mark of 83.600, and fourth-place Shane Wiskus, the former Gopher from Spring Park.
Wiskus, runner-up to Malone for the NCAA all-around crown, overcame a poor start on vault to score 83.350 and remain in the hunt for a podium spot. While he righted himself quickly, two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak never gained traction. Mikulak, who is pursuing his seventh U.S. all-around title, sits in seventh place after a fall on parallel bars and significant mistakes on floor exercise and pommel horse.
The men's competition concludes Saturday, when champions will be crowned in the all-around and six individual events. The meet also will determine which athletes advance to the Olympic trials June 23-27 in St. Louis.
"My goal is to push for the Olympics," said Malone, who also won the NCAA all-around title as a freshman in 2019. "Everything went pretty well. I stayed in the zone, and everything worked out."
Brett McClure, men's high performance director for USA Gymnastics, said before the meet that the competition was "more wide open than it's probably ever been." That was borne out Thursday, as younger gymnasts like Malone, Briones and Wiskus outshined established U.S. stars.
Malone, the first back-to-back NCAA all-around champ since Mikulak in 2013-14, finished with top-three scores on four of six events. Briones, his Cardinal teammate, avoided any major mistakes.
Wiskus encountered his worst stumble right out of the gate. On the landing of his vault, he stepped sideways over the boundary, incurring a deduction that dropped his score to 13.500. He followed up with one of his best events, parallel bars, earning a score of 14.550 that tied for the night's highest mark on that event.
"It was a doozy of a start," said Wiskus, a two-time NCAA champ on parallel bars. "With an event like vault, you always want to start with a big score and get the momentum rolling. It definitely took some extra effort to put that behind me.
"It was not an ideal scenario. But I think I did the best with the cards I was dealt."
Mikulak had not competed in 15 months and has been hampered by an elbow injury. Still, he is considered a lock to make the Olympic team, and his performance Thursday was unexpected.
He said he was fatigued and lacking in confidence, feeling like he was "just trying to dodge fear" most of the night. Mikulak will try to make some quick adjustments before Saturday's final day of competition.
"I was feeling a lot of pressure, a lot of nerves," he said. "The stress was definitely a big factor."
Two other Gophers gymnasts also qualified for the championships. Mike Moran is 26th in the all-around standings, while Crew Bold had to withdraw from competition because of a foot injury.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the competition.