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By John Powers
Sam Mikulak had said that another national title wasn't important, that it was all about hitting his routines here. But after claiming his fourth consecutive men's crown Sunday afternoon at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in Hartford, Conn., he wasn't about to leave town without it.
"I would have liked to have had a better performance, I think that's always the case," Mikulak said after he'd outpointed Chris Brooks 181.500 to 179.850 to become the first competitor to win four-in-a-row since Blaine Wilson collected five between 1996 and 2000. "It's nice to add another title to my belt, but right now, it's all about getting ready for the next one. There's no looking back."
The next one will be the Olympic trials in three weeks in St. Louis, where the five-man team for the Rio Games will be determined from among 18 contenders. What was clear after two days at the XL Center was that the competition for places will be unusually intense.
"It's not surprising because we know we have so much depth," said London veteran Jake Dalton, who won on floor, tied for first on vault and finished third overall in a competition in which three contenders deadlocked for fifth place. "It shows that we don't just have two guys. Everybody's ready."
Three of the top seven were collegians. Stanford's Akash Modi placed fourth ahead of Oklahoma's Yul Moldauer and Ohio State's Sean Melton, who were deadlocked with World-teamer Donnell Whittenburg.
"I've grown up with Sean and Yul training and competing against them," said Modi, who won the bronze medal on parallel bars. "It's awesome to see that the NCAA program is producing some of the best gymnasts in the country, especially in an Olympic year when it's extremely hard to make it into this competition at all."
John Orozco, who won the 2012 title, was happy just to be back in the mix after re-tearing an Achilles tendon last year. "I honestly don't feel any pressure, really," he said after placing tenth and winning bronze on high bar. "I'm just lucky and glad I'm here to keep pursuing this dream of mine."
Danell Leyva, who won the all-around bronze in London, pronounced himself satisfied with a 16th-place showing that came in the wake of hand and leg injuries sustained last month when he tried to break up a fight between his two bulldogs. "I felt pretty good, and today, I'm pretty happy with how I did coming from Friday," he said. "Friday was a little rough. I wasn't trying to be perfect here."
Most competitors were looking simply for 12 clean routines, knowing that an untimely slip or stumble would scramble the standings. Whittenburg, who'd led after the first day, had a tough go on Sunday, falling off the high bar and coming off pommel horse before rebounding on still rings (which he won) and vault. "It's not the meet that I wanted," he acknowledged. "It's just more motivating for me to get back in the gym and get more consistent. That's exactly what I need to do."
For Mikulak, who'd suffered Achilles and ankle injuries after last year's triumph and missed the world championships, this event was about showing that he was back in the global chase. "That was a lot of motivation leading into this competition, to really prove myself and show that I'm ready," he said. "I want the world to watch."
Mikulak began the second day with a solid 15.550 on parallel bars, managed to stay on the high bar with 'will power', and submitted a 15.400 on floor exercise. But when Brooks took over the lead, helped by a stirring 15.800 on p-bars, Mikulak had to go down to the final event to clinch.
"That was the moment when I started feeling that momentum, what gymnastics is all about," he said. "That adrenaline, the excitement of coming down to the last guy."
Mikulak's 15.250 on vault was enough to hold off Brooks by 1.650 points. "The takeaway that I got from here is, I didn't have fantastic routines on all the events," he said. "I did really good on three events the first day and then I did really good on the other three the next day. And so I'm definitely there. I've got it all in me. We're just going to get stronger and stronger going into the Olympic trials."