By Blythe Lawrence
There’s no getting away from it: this one hurt.
Through five rotations of the men’s all-around final Wednesday at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, Sam Mikulak had the competition of his life. With only high bar left, the 26-year-old Californian sat in bronze-medal position, more than half a point ahead of Russian rival Nikita Nagornyy and within striking distance of leaders Arthur Dalaloyan of Russia and China’s Xiao Ruoteng.
He was perfectly poised to win his first individual World medal. Mikulak even had the advantage of ending on high bar, where he had put up the highest score of the competition in Monday’s team final.
What happened next is something Mikulak would like to forget: After catching his first four release skills, his hand slipped off the bar as he re-grasped the bar after his fifth, a Tkatchev half. For an instant, Mikulak dangled wildly, then pulled himself back up and resuming the routine, but the damage was done. A 12.366 for the botched exercise, more than two points shy of the 14.5 he’d scored in the team final, dropped him from third to fifth overall.
Top five in the world is nothing to throw chalk at, but after qualifying for the all-around final in second place, Mikulak made no secret of the fact that he had aspired to do better.
“I thought this was my year. I felt so good for it,” he said. “I had done this a million times and I was so ready for every single thing, and it showed until high bar. I’ll probably watch that routine like a million times just to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I used to not watch [the routines with errors], but I think as you get older you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. Things hurt, but if you don’t let it hurt, you’re not going to get over it and you’re not going to get better.”
The night began with exceptional promise for the five-time U.S. champion, who opened up with a focused set on floor and nailed his pommel horse routine, sending the message that he had come to play for a medal. Stuck landings after error-free exercises on still rings, vault, and parallel bars fired him up further, and heading into high bar he stood him in good stead to land on the podium.
Instead, he’ll regroup and focus on his four other chances for a medal in Friday and Saturday’s event finals, including a much anticipated second shot at the high bar.
Mikulak is the first to admit that he has struggled with consistency on the world stage. Over three World Championships and two Olympic Games, he has come oh-so-close to a medal numerous times, most notably at the 2013 Worlds and 2016 Olympics, where he finished fourth on high bar. Less than a tenth of a point separated him and bronze in Rio.
Even the midst of sadness at yet another lost opportunity Wednesday, Mikulak recognized a stronger emotion lurking in the background.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more pissed off in my life, so I’m going to run with that. Let anger be my fuel from here on out,” he said. “I’ll turn it around. I’ve still got some opportunities, and that’s where life will come back.”
Strong and compact, Dalaloyan displayed beautiful gymnastics on every event as he become the second Russian man to win a world all-around title. The Moldovan-born 22-year-old finished his competition tied for first with 2017 World champion Xiao, and ended with gold based on a tiebreaking procedure that compares the total of each gymnast’s five best routines. The muscular Nagornyy, the top qualifier to the final, settled for bronze.
2017 U.S. champion Yul Moldauer, competing in his second consecutive World all-around final, landed in 12th after his own last-rotation miss on pommel horse. “I had an amazing time,” said the Oklahoma senior, who will compete in Friday’s floor final alongside Mikulak. “I just keep thinking about Sam, though. It’s tough for him because I know how hard he’s worked, so hopefully he can reset and come out in the event finals and do his world-class gymnastics.”
Mikulak, feeling the passage of time, agreed. “Someone asked me before, how many times have you been in the World all- around competition?” he said. “It’s like oh man, you’ve already done four [including the 2016 Olympics] now. How many more are you going to get? But I’m going to keep kicking. It’s not over.”