Comeback King: Mikulak Claims 2nd U.S. Men's Title
posted on 08/24/2014

© John Cheng

By Jo-Ann Barnas

PITTSBURGH – There was drama at the end – just as Sam Mikulak expected – on the final day of the senior men’s competition Sunday at the P&G Gymnastics Championships at CONSOL Energy Center.

Mikulak was in second place, 1.05 points behind leader Jake Dalton, who was sticking his palms in the chalk bucket near the pommel horse the moment Mikulak saluted to signal his readiness on vault.

Mikulak raced down the runway, and, seconds later, had both arms raised as he celebrated his solidly executed Kasamatsu 1 1/2 (2 1/2 twists).

But would his 14.95 score be enough for Mikulak to capture his second-straight U.S. men’s senior title?

As it turned out, it was more than enough.

It was a workmanlike and not entirely unexpected comeback victory for Mikulak, who hit all six of his routines to finish on top with 180.650 points – nearly a half-point ahead of silver medalist John Orozco (180.200).

Dalton’s score on pommel horse (13.10) dropped him to third. He won the bronze medal with 179.850 points.

“I told myself that I was going to do my own gymnastics – I’m going to do Sam,” said Mikulak, who has become Team USA’s top male gymnast since the 2012 London Olympics.

Mikulak entered Sunday’s final in fourth place, 2.35 points behind Orozco. Before warm-ups, he was pulled aside for a gentle reminder from Kurt Golder, the University of Michigan coach who guided the gymnast to three NCAA all-around titles. (The lone one he lost came in his sophomore season in 2012; it was won by Dalton, competing for the University of Oklahoma.)

“I said, ‘Don’t try to get the whole 2.3 back – just chip away,’’’ Golder said. “At the end, he still had to nail his vault. It wasn’t a done deal until it was a done deal.”

Heading into Sunday, all Mikulak said he wanted to do was eliminate the errors that cost him Friday night – specifically on parallel bars and floor exercise.

Mission accomplished.

Mikulak delivered big scores all afternoon. On his opening two events, he scored 15.45 on parallel bars (winning the individual event title) and 15.80 on high bar. By then, he had moved up to third in the all-around, pulling to within 1.20 points of the lead.

Mikulak was then spot on in floor exercise, his 15.65 score pulling him into second place with three events to go.

Orozco, the 2012 U.S. champion, said he was aware of Mikulak’s steady climb up the leader board at the meet. He, too, was almost expecting it to happen.

“It says that Sam is Sam,” Orozco said. “He’s such a gamer. He does it when the time is right. Everything he does seems so effortless. It kind of inspires me in the gym.”

On pommel horse, Mikulak continued to narrow the gap, pulling to within .35 of new leader Dalton, after scoring a 15.45. Mikulak’s lowest scores of the afternoon came on his last two events (14.95 on still rings; 14.95 on vault), but Dalton and Orozco – who ended on floor exercise with a 15.00 score – came up short of beating Mikulak with their routines.

Donnell Whittenburg took fourth place in the all around (178.100). Danell Leyva was fifth (177.500) and Alex Naddour wassixth (176.350).

The top six all-arounders received automatic berths onto the U.S. Senior National Team. The others selected: Wynn, Paul Ruggeri, Jonathan Horton, Chris Brooks, Marvin Kimble, Steven Legendre, CJ Maestas, Sean Melton and Eddie Penev.

Individual event national titles went to Dalton (floor exercise); Mikulak (pommel horse); Brandon Wynn (still rings); Donnell Whittenburg (vault); Leyva (parallel bars); and Orozco (high bar).

When Horton tied for the individual silver medal on parallel bars with Dalton, the medal marked the 18th national medal of his career. But for Horton, his performance over two days told him that he’s on track to make his third straight Olympic team in Rio in 2016.

“In terms of where I want to be, I’m 50 percent there,” said Horton, who was competing for the first time since the London Olympics. “I was so much more calm and relaxed (today). I spent so much emotional energy in day one. I just tried to relax and let my past experience take over.”

Horton, who had been sidelined by a blown right shoulder and then by a torn pectoral muscle the last two years, competed Sunday with a heavily bandaged right elbow in a freak accident at his hotel when he banged his arm against the soap tray.

“I ruptured the bursa sac,” said Horton, who was in 12th place after the first day. “I didn’t affect me at all today.”

With the world championships just six weeks away – Oct. 3-13 in Nanning, China – Golder said Mikulak has been working on adding new elements on parallel bars and pommel horse to begin closing the distance between his gymnast and Olympic and fourt-time world champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan.

“Uchimura is fantastic – that’s the target, the one we’re challenging,” Golder said. “There’s a big discrepancy between their start values, but we’re working on closing the gap.”

As for Mikulak, well, he wants his dream to be reality.

“My whole goal is to be world all-around champion,” Mikulak said. “And I’m going to chip away as much as I can and keep pushing to the dream.”