By Jo-Ann Barnas
PITTSBURGH – Sam Mikulak was a little late to the party – in this case, just a round of interviews with news media in town to cover the P&G Gymnastics Championships – when he took a seat next to two-time Olympic medalist Jonathon Horton.
“Aw, stealing my thunder,” Horton deadpanned to Mikulak, whom Horton knows can capture a room with his effervescent personality.
Mikulak couldn’t mount a comeback to that one. So he just laughed.
Much has changed for Mikulak this past year. But in a way, nothing has.
The senior men’s competition at the P&G Championships kicks off Friday at Consol Energy Center, where Mikulak will begin defending his U.S. all-around title.
At stake is a return trip to the World Championships this fall in China, where the 22-year-old Californian hopes to improve on his sixth-place finish in the all-around a year ago in Belgium. He was also fourth at worlds on the high bar.
“It’s always different, being someone who’s defending than going for the first-place spot,” said Mikulak.
Mikulak wrapped up his competitive college career at the University of Michigan last spring by winning his third NCAA all-around crown and helping the Wolverines to their second-straight team title.
The gymnast said he has two semesters left until he graduates. Instead of heading off to a different environment, Mikulak said he’s committed to training under Kurt Golder at Michigan.
“Nothing changed in my life,” Mikulak shrugged, “except I won’t be competing at Michigan anymore.”
Before Wednesday’s podium training, Mikulak said he felt well-rested and healthy. Having said that, though, he said he’s not at the top of his game.
“Everyone is peaking for the world championships in eight to 10 weeks from now,” he said. “This is a stepping stone for that.”
During Wednesday’s media availability, Danell Leyva was sitting down the row from Mikulak. When Leyva, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in the all-around, was asked if he needed to adopt some of Mikulak’s easy-going nature to help combat a recent lack of confidence, Leyva shook his head and laughed.
“Sam is a little out of the box for me,” Leyva said. “I think it’s awesome that he can be that loose in a competition. It’s impressive. Sam needs to be relaxed. I need to be me.’’
For Mikulak, his knack for remaining seemingly unfazed by pressure is a vital part of his personality. And he hopes it doesn’t disappear anytime soon.
“Kurt has a saying,’’ Mikulak said. “’If it works do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.’’