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By Ashley Scoby
Sam Mikulak had just completed his final event, the high bar, at the first day of the U.S. Championships in Kansas City on Thursday. One cheer rang out louder than anything else: “We love you, Sam!”
Upon Mikulak landing his bar dismount, the crowd at Sprint Center roared louder than it had most of the night. A group of kids in the corner near the high bar banded together for a “We love you” cheer.
Mikulak fans had plenty to be happy about Thursday, as his dominance on the championships’ first day was the story of the evening. He finished the night with an 86.750 score, 2.750 points clear of second-place Yul Moldauer, out of the University of Oklahoma.
Mikulak is going for his sixth all-around championship, which would tie Makoto Sakamoto, who earned his sixth all-around title in 1970.
Thursday was the first step towards making that a reality.
Mikulak held steady in the top three all night, boosted by top scores in three events: floor (14.650), parallel bars (15.350) and high bar (14.200).
Despite Mikulak not going heavy on difficulty on the first of two days, he felt confident that “Day 2 Sam” would be even stronger on Saturday.
“I felt like I proved to the committee, ‘Hey, consistent Sam can do these easy routines and still score well,’” he said. “Let’s see what event finalist Sam can do heading into Saturday.”
This is a rhythm that Mikulak has perfected over the years. After five all-around national titles, he knows what he’s doing. And it’s not necessarily anything over-the-top that will get him in position for his record-tying sixth championship. It will be the fact that he’s settled into a routine that doesn’t involve second-guessing.
“I think at this point going for a sixth, I just feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin, that’s the best way to put it,” he said. “I’m sure of myself. I don’t have anything I’m second guessing, no training plan I feel I should have been doing. I’ve found a rhythm and I’ve really been able to perfect everything about my training.”
That perfection showed, at least as much as perfection can show in a sport like gymnastics. As he holds steady at nearly three points clear of the rest of the field, Mikulak is one step closer to number six.
If anyone is to challenge Mikulak heading into Saturday, it might be Moldauer. The Oklahoma senior didn’t post top scores in any event, but was consistent enough across the board to come out of Thursday in second place overall.
“I can’t complain,” Moldauer said. “I hit 6 for 6. Probably P-bars is where I felt strongest. It’s one of those events that I really love doing. That was the one event I felt like I hit really well.”
Moldauer posted a 14.800 in that event, followed by a 14.300 each on floor and vault.
Despite the gap between himself and Mikulak, Moldauer was positive about everything he could take into Day 2. Although he said he could see room for improvement in at least four events, he was happy with where he stood after the championships’ first day. Moldauer is coming back from a significant elbow injury earlier in the year as well.
“It’s things I can focus on for Day 2,” he said. “I know that I can come in here, and now it’s just about perfecting.”
That mindset was similar to that of Donnell Whittenburg, Mikulak’s U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center teammate. Whittenburg stands in seventh place heading into Day 2, after particularly strong scores in the rings (14.500) and vault (14.350). Whittenburg said he was motivated for this next year of competition because of how close he came to the Olympics in 2016 – but for now, the focus remains on the competition in Kansas City.
“I’m somewhat pleased with how I did today, but I definitely feel I can do better than what I did today,” he said. “Just need to go back and reflect on what happened today, take notes, and make it a little bit better for Saturday. First things first, I’ve still got one more day of Championships, so just need to focus on that right now. Just for right now, taking baby steps.”