SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — A year ago, Asher Hong felt alone. On the competition floor anyway.
The gymnastics prodigy spent the 2022 U.S. Championships competing for his home club back in Texas. He managed a solid third-place finish, yet there was something missing, an energy required to provide a boost during the final stages of meets when things get tight.
Hong found it at Stanford. Joining the Cardinal, one of the few remaining national powers in the sport at the NCAA level, gave him a sense of camaraderie that's hard to replicate.
Surrounded by his teammates during Saturday night's finals and the lead he held gone through three relatively so-so rotations, Hong leaned on that juice to power his way to a national title.
Fueled by a dazzling set on still rings punctuated by a guttural scream during his dismount, Hong surged ahead over his final three rotations to post a two-day total of 170.930, well clear of Stanford teammate Khoi Young in second place and Fred Richard in third.
Hong credited the team-first approach of Stanford coach Thom Glielmi for helping him regroup. Hong spent the night rotating with six of his teammates — including Young — and their encouragement powered him to the finish.
“Thom always says that last two events, you know, that’s where the real gymnastics is,” Hong said. “Show up and bring the energy (for the rest of the team).”
The 19-year-old Hong is the first teenager to win a men's all-around national championship since John Orozco in 2012. Hong, Young (20) and Richard (19) are at the front end of a wave of newcomers who hope to help the U.S. men's program return to relevance.
The next five years could be pivotal. The Americans haven't won a team medal at a major international event since the 2014 world championships. Men's gymnastics is struggling to survive as a scholarship sport. Having a core group that could find its footing on the world stage by the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles would help.
“We need to hit a home run at that Olympic Games in order to boost the sport,” Hong said.
The world championships in Belgium this fall offer a chance to get it going. The five-man team will be named on Sunday morning, turning nationals into essentially a selection camp.
Hong figures to see his name on the list when it's unveiled. Richard too, despite a so-so night in which his bid for a national title vanished after coming off the pommel horse twice near the end of his routine.
“On every event there was some small thing that I was just asking ‘Why am I kind of not thriving?’” Richard said. “It was just kind of like hanging on.”
Yul Moldauer began the night with a chance to bookend the national championship he won six years ago. A fall on the high bar and the ensuing score of 11.200 sent him tumbling down to fifth.
Their miscues opened the door for Young, a junior at Stanford. A strong set on pommels propelled him into second a year after he had to withdraw from the 2022 championships due to a sprained ankle.
The memory of what felt like a missed opportunity hung with Young as he prepared for the finals. He and Hong spent two-plus hours feeding off each other, turning their tour of the SAP Center into a showcase for what the Cardinal have built.
The next step is translating that success from the NCAA to something that could have a far greater impact.
Having a podium topped by three athletes who aren't old enough to drink legally is a pretty solid start.
“Now it’s all younger guys,” Richard said. “But we’re definitely showing that there’s no gap in this in the skill with us being younger, which is good because in the future we'll be a lot stronger.”
AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games