Colin Van Wicklen has been before. In fact, the former Oklahoma Sooner has made five previous trips to the Winter Cup Challenge dating back to his prep years in Magnolia, Texas.
But this year’s competition should feel like home for Van Wicklen. Of the 36 juniors and 48 seniors expected to compete, 13 will be current, former and future Sooners.
“It's going to be incredible because ... at least 25% of the field is an Oklahoma Sooner, so it’s almost going to feel like a team competition,” Van Wicklen said. “We’re going to have guys in two different groups from OU cheering for each other. We're going to have parents and family in the stands, so it’s going to almost be like an away meet for Oklahoma. It's going to be a really cool experience just to show the talent that we have here in Norman.”
What makes the Winter Cup Challenge such a special event is the bearing it has on selecting the U.S. Men’s National Team. Following the first day of competition, the top six all-around athletes will automatically qualify for the 2019 senior national team.
Using scores from both days of competition, the Men’s Program Committee will select six more gymnasts from the participants at the Winter Cup Challenge.
“It’s an opportunity to have these guys compete to be on the national team and have opportunities to be out internationally representing the United States,” OU coach Mark Williams said. “We’ve got guys who have been on the National Team and expect to make it again. We’re getting close to another Olympic cycle. One year away, they kind of want to be in that mix of the top group and hopefully have a chance to be at the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.”
The Oklahoma contingent joining Van Wicklen at the Winter Cup includes Yul Moldauer, who was part of the national team that competed at the World Championships. Other Sooners heading to Las Vegas include senior national teamer Genki Suzuki, Levi Anderson, Gage Dyer, Spencer Goodell, (current junior national teamer), Vitaliy Guimaraes, Tanner Justus, Alexei Vernyi and former Sooners Kanji Oyama and Allan Bower, who are both U.S. National Team members.
Anderson, who is a senior at Oklahoma, will be making his third trip to the Winter Cup Challenge. He remembers the first time when he was still in high school.
“The first time was honestly kind of surreal because I was actually in a group with Jonathan Horton, who’s a great Sooner alumni,” Anderson said. “But he was training with me back at Cypress. So it was kind of cool to go out there on the floor and be in the same rotation group as a veteran like Jonathan Horton and watch what he did and just learn from the best, so to speak. That was probably my favorite thing about the first time I went.”
For Gage Dyer, he is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to Winter Cup experience. He is making his debut at the event, but feels he is ready to be on the big stage.
“I'm excited to go out there and show off all my hard work. I think it’s about time for me to get out there and give it all I’ve got,” Dyer said. “What makes it special is I want to get the opportunity to see if I can make the national team. I think all the guys that are going to the Winter Cup have that ability, so I think that’s a good motivation for us to do well.”
That seems to be the mindset Williams has instilled in the athletes who come to Oklahoma. They are looking to test themselves against the best, which is why they have a large group at competitions like the Winter Cup.
“This is what OU does,” Van Wicklen said. “Championships and champions are made in this building, but it’s still definitely a huge accomplishment to have that many guys compete at one of the biggest meets for the U.S. It’s going to be really cool to go out and compete with my teammates and, you know, family.”
That family atmosphere extends to the gymnasts who have yet to wear the Crimson and Cream uniforms yet. But, according to Anderson, the Winter Cup is almost like a rite of passage for 2019 signees Lazarus Barnhill (current U.S. Junior National Team member) and Jack Freeman
“The guys that are going to be here next year that are going to be wearing Crimson and Cream, it’s kind of like ‘Welcome to the family’ kind of thing,” Anderson said. “But it’s really, really special to go out there and see the amount of guys that we have because it just goes to speak for the program. We’re the only school out there that’s got that kind of numbers. I think we have 13 guys that are either future, former or present Sooners. That to me is unreal, but really, it’s just kind of like seeing other family members out there.”