Biles' and Mikulak's roller coaster Worlds end with gold, bronze
posted on 11/03/2018

© John Cheng

By Blythe Lawrence

For Simone Biles and Sam Mikulak, Doha 2018 will go down as the roller coaster Worlds.

“I’m like my own roller coaster out there,” Biles said last Saturday as the World Championships in the Qatari capital were still getting under way. “

I made it a very long emotional roller coaster for myself,” Mikulak echoed Saturday night as it was all ending.

The ride, projected to be smooth, got bumpy early on. At her first major international competition since resuming training a year ago this month, Biles was supposed to dominate, showing off the more mature style and upgraded routines that have shocked a gymnastics community accustomed to slow-cooked comebacks.

Mikulak, in the best physical and mental shape of his career, wanted to walk out with an individual world medal, his first after several years of domestic domination.

While both of America’s No. 1 gymnasts got what they were aiming for in the end, the ride was fraught with unforeseen physical and emotional difficulties.

Competing with a kidney stone that has been a source of pain and anxiety all week, Biles was good enough on floor and beam Saturday to pocket gold and bronze, respectively, bringing her medal count to six at this World Championships and 20 total. That ties her on the all-time world medal list with Russian great Svetlana Khorkina, who won 20 between 1994 and 2003.

Even if not everything Biles did lived up to her own exacting standards -- she nearly fell on balance beam on a front tuck with a half twist, a skill that has given her problems most of the week, and put a toe out of bounds on one of the four complex tumbling passes -- the four-time Olympic gold medalist gave a positive summary of her performance Saturday.

“I think there’s a lot to be proud of. I’m here, made all the EFs (event finals), medaled in all the events — and I survived,” Biles said. “I wish some of [my routines] would have been better, but I’m really proud of the outcome. I’m really happy that I stayed on the beam because going into this World Championships, I wasn’t as confident as I used to be on beam so I think it’s a step forward, and hopefully from here on out, it can only improve from here.”

In the sixth of his six finals, Mikulak finally captured the long-awaited World medal of his own, taking bronze for a high bar routine that was among the best he’s ever done. “This was my one goal for the entire year: just getting one,” said Mikulak, who also finished fourth with the team, on pommel horse and on parallel bars, and seventh on floor. He also placed fifth all-around after a devastating mistake on high bar cost him a medal.

“I didn’t care what color it was, just breaking into the scene,” he added. “It was an emotional journey, and just going out and hitting high bar after high bar was the event I messed up in all-around finals and getting that redemption. There was just so much buildup.”

2012 Olympic high bar champion Epke Zonderland won his third world title on high bar over two-time Olympic all-around champion Kohei Uchimura. Other champions were Ri Se Gwnag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on Vault and China’s Zou Jingyuan on Parallel Bars.

2017 women’s all-around champion Morgan Hurd closed out her Worlds by adding a silver medal on floor behind Biles, giving her a complete set of medals following her bronze in the all-around and gold with the U.S. team.

“It just feels absolutely wonderful,” Hurd said. “My team final wasn’t the absolute best that I could have done, and I was really happy to be in final this year. I wanted it so badly.”

China’s Liu Tingting was the surprise champion on beam after errors beset some of the favorites, including Olympic champion Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands. Canada’s Ana Padurariu, competing at her first Worlds, delivered a clutch performance for silver. 2017 World floor champion Mai Murakami earned bronze on her best event this year.

A miss on her beam mount dashed Kara Eaker’s hopes of becoming the first American non-Biles World champion on balance beam since Nastia Liukin in 2007. The 15-year-old rebounded with an otherwise hit routine and said that she’ll learn from the experience.

“I just think it was the nerves,” Eaker sighed. “I just tried to push the fall aside and just move on with my routine because it’s not over until it’s over.”

The U.S. leaves Doha with nine medals total, including the women’s team gold. With the ride at an end, it’s time to regroup before thinking about next year.

“It’s been a journey but it’s not over,” Mikulak said. “I think there’s a storybook ending out there for me. It was not everything I was hoping it would be, but I think if I keep plugging away the ending will come.”