Lasting Legacy

John Rohde
By John Rohde Contributor

More than two weeks have passed, but the pain remains for Oklahoma gymnast Yul Moldauer.

It's not just the heartache of the Sooners failing to win a fifth straight national championship; not the disappointment of Moldauer failing to successfully defend his NCAA all-around title; not the frustration of failing in his quest to win more NCAA individual championships than any gymnast in history.

Moldauer's pain goes deeper than that.

It is buried in an inflamed right elbow that catastrophically buckled on the final night of an unprecedented collegiate career.

While guarding against aggravating the injury further in the preliminary session the night before finals, Moldauer competed in just three events and did so with familiar results, putting up the top scores on still rings and parallel bars and also placing fourth on pommel horse.

“It had been bothering him in training, so we had been limiting how much he did just to be careful,” OU head coach Mark Williams said of protecting Moldauer's elbow.

Given his stature as the defending NCAA all-around champion and one of the greatest collegiate gymnasts in history, Moldauer competed in all six events in the finals.

His first event was floor exercise. At the 24-second mark of his routine, while performing his opening flare move, Moldauer's right arm simply collapsed. He landed on his elbow as a gasp echoed throughout State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. The defending NCAA floor champion had posted a team-low score of 13.466.

“When it buckled on my flare, I had never done something like that in my life,” Moldauer explained. “I was like, ‘What just happened?' It was a legit shock to me. It's been almost like a pinching in my elbow. Every time I lock my arm, I get this shooting pain throughout my arm. What's crazy is I know I can compete on it because I had competed in conference without it hurting, but it just kept doing some weird buckling.”

Williams immediately went on high alert. “If he got into that hyper-extended position, the elbow was going to give out again,” Williams said.

Alas for Moldauer, the championship finals had just begun. Five elements remained.

Pommel horse was next. “What's crazy is that's the event I was nervous for, because that's all on your arms,” said Moldauer, who scored a team-high 14.100 and finished third. “The injury is something I can't really control. It just kind of gives out here and there. Even though I might feel fine, it might not be fine. Even now (two weeks later) it's still a little sore.”

On rings, Moldauer was superb, scoring a 14.533 to place second.

On vault, he again carded a 14.533.

Then came parallel bars, where Moldauer again was defending his national crown. Eighteen seconds into his routine, Moldauer's right elbow again buckled. Though he recovered quickly, the damage had been done, resulting in a score of 13.133.

On high bar, the Sooners' final rotation of championship night, Moldauer swung too fast and failed to catch the bar on a release move. The final score of Moldauer's captivating collegiate career was an unimaginable 12.066, a career-low by almost a full point.

However, the high-bar miss wasn't necessarily caused by the balky elbow. By then, perhaps the entire experience of his final college competition had overwhelmed Moldauer. It had been a taxing three days. On Thursday night, Moldauer became the eighth OU gymnast to receive the Nissen-Emery Award, given annually to the top senior male collegiate gymnast. The preliminary round came the following night, then the finals. Plus, there was the uncertainty of a bum elbow.

Despite falling on three of the six events and posting a team-low score three times, Moldauer somehow still managed to finish sixth in the all-around. “Which is pretty incredible,” Williams said.

On a night to forget by Moldauer's lofty standards, he earned three All-America honors, pushing his career total to 18 and leaving him in a tie for second in NCAA history. A two-time NCAA all-around champion, Moldauer finished his OU career with seven individual national titles, tied for the most in collegiate gymnastics history.

Yul Horse

Moldauer concludes his decorated Oklahoma career as a Nissen-Emery Award winner, 13-time individual conference champion, seven-time NCAA individual champion and 18-time All-American.

Williams said the fall on high bar cost Moldauer at least 1.3 points for not completing the move. “You've got to catch the release to get credit,” Williams said. Had Moldauer been able to catch the bar and complete the skill, his score easily exceeds 13.000, the Sooners' winning streak reaches 126 and their run of consecutive national titles would be five and counting.

Instead, the outcome marked the first collegiate defeat for every gymnast on the OU roster. The last time the Sooners lost was their second-place finish at the 2014 NCAA Championships.

OU finished this season with a 28-1 record and their winning streak of 121 straight stands as third-longest in NCAA history behind Miami men's tennis (137 straight from 1957-64) and BYU-Hawaii women's tennis (130 straight from 2002-05).

This year marked the 20th consecutive season the Sooners advanced to the team finals of the NCAA Championships. With a victory, Williams would have topped the NCAA gymnastics charts with 10 national titles.

“People come to school (hoping) to win one national championship and we're walking out of here with three,” Moldauer said. “Some schools don't even get to compete at NCAA Championships (once) and that's crazy to even think about. It's a blessing looking back at everything we've done.”

Asked to reflect on the remarkable winning streak finally coming to an end, Moldauer said, “When you lose, you look back and think. ‘Wow, we really can be upset at any time.' We had an amazing run. Each year is different. Even though we got second this year, it feels like we didn't lose. We did everything we could. We worked as hard as we had to work. We left it all on the floor. This is all about sports and things like this happen. If you look back on the things the alumni did, that our team did and what the seniors have accomplished, that's going to last you through your whole lifetime.”

Trailing by 4.400 points (348.491-344.091) entering the final rotation at this year's championship, eventual champion Stanford had no choice but to swing for the fences on the rings. “You can just kind of go all out when you're on rings and have a chance to score well, and that's what they did,” Williams said. “They seized the opportunity.”

Williams said he was well-aware of Stanford's talent and added the Cardinal likely would be favored to win the national crown next season. Instead, the title came a year earlier than anticipated for Stanford, which also has landed an excellent recruiting class.

“They brought it,” Williams said of the competitive Cardinal. “They deserved to be the national champion. After the meet, I grabbed our guys and said, ‘You need to figure it out (accept defeat) here in the next couple of minutes and go congratulate them. We can make all kinds of excuses, but I don't think the results are going to change going forward.' ”

As well as the Sooners performed this season, Williams knew there was still very little margin for error. “I felt like we kept putting ourselves in a position all year where we were battling it out on the last event against a team that's as good as we are,” Williams said.

"People come to school (hoping) to win one national championship and we're walking out of here with three. It's a blessing looking back at everything we've done."
- Yul Moldauer

Williams admits to second-guessing himself on the split-second decision he made prior to Moldauer hopping up on the high bar.

“You beat yourself up a little bit thinking, ‘Well, if I put somebody else in, we probably could have won.' But if that guy doesn't do well, you're thinking, ‘Why didn't we have Yul in?' ” Williams said.

Multiple scenarios were racing through Williams' head.

“You're considering Yul defending his all-around title, and you're considering what a great competitor he is,” Williams said. “Afterward, you can be the armchair quarterback and make all kinds of decisions that might have worked. I was the guy who was talking to Yul at the chalk box before high bar and suggesting, ‘It's OK if you're not able to go.' Yul's a competitor. He's not going to tell me, ‘Take me out.' He thought he could do it and he had the right to make the call.”

Even Moldauer second-guessed himself.

“Looking back, I probably should have let Losh (Alexei Vernyi) go in. I definitely should have,” Moldauer said. “It's something I'll probably regret for the rest of my life. Mark said he had full confidence in me and said, ‘You deserve to be in this lineup no matter what happens.' I can't thank Mark enough just for saying that. He knew he was putting the national championship on the line with me. I didn't deliver, but he told me afterward I had already done enough for this team and no matter what, it was going to be OK.”

A communication major, Moldauer will remain at OU to earn his degree and continue training. A long-time USA Gymnastics coach, Williams and Moldauer will remain side-by-side for years to come in Moldauer's quest to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 2024 Games in Paris.

Williams said Moldauer's immediate goal is to train for the World Championship team, which will be selected in August. “Hopefully, by that time his elbow will have settled down and he can make that team,” Williams said. A week-long camp will be held next month in Japan in a suburb of Tokyo as part of Team USA's acclimation for next year's Olympics.

In the meantime, Williams will do his best to absorb what he called the most devastating finish to any of his 20 seasons at OU.

“Couple of days later, the sun came out,” Williams said, forcing a chuckle. “Things started looking a little bit better, but it's still hard. We had the team (to win the title), we just didn't have the performance that night.”

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