Mikulak’s grace, ‘elegant’ performance recognized at Worlds
posted on 10/11/2019

© John Cheng

By Blythe Lawrence

It didn’t end with the medal he might have wanted, but Sam Mikulak found a silver -- or rather titanium -- lining in the men’s all-around competition Friday at the World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

An unintentional dismount off the pommel horse during the most difficult skill in his routine likely cost the six-time U.S. champion a spot on the podium at his fifth Worlds as Mikulak settled for a respectable seventh place with 85.691 points, including the highest score of the night on high bar (14.700) and the second best on parallel bars (15.325).

“I felt so comfortable out there; the crowd was so energizing. It made me believe in myself. I had such confidence,” said Mikulak, always eager to find the bright side. “This time I competed how I trained. I was just one skill away from my true potential.”

Through four events, he was nearly perfect. Mikulak’s vault, parallel bars and high bar sets were among the best of his career, so good he led the field halfway through the competition. It was a complete reversal from his qualification round, where numerous falls meant that Mikulak got the very last spot available into the final, and only because three gymnasts who placed higher than he did were excluded by the two-per-country rule in finals.

It was the Busnari, a high-difficulty pirouetting skill that passes through handstand and continues into circles on the narrow pommel horse, that did him in. Mikulak fell on the same during the individual qualification, then nailed it in the team final. In the all-around final, he could have played it safe and skipped it, but knew he needed the points the skill gave him to have a shot at the podium.

“If I had pulled it out, I definitely wouldn’t have medaled, so it was one of those situations where you go for broke, you’ve got to do it,” he said. “It was a roll the dice kind of moment, and they didn’t roll in my favor.”

But Mikulak kept the smile on his face and reaped an unlooked-for reward as a result. The Longines Prize for Elegance, sponsored by the Swiss watchmaker and selected by a jury that includes International Gymnastics Federation President Morinari Watanabe, is bestowed upon the male and female gymnasts who display the most personal “elegance” on and off the competition floor.

Until Friday, an American man had never received the award, which in previous years has gone to Olympic champions like Japanese legend Kohei Uchimura and British star Max Whitlock. But following the presentation of the all-around medals, Mikulak and France’s Melanie de Jesus dos Santos were announced as this year’s award recipients and honored in a special ceremony, each receiving their own Longines watch and a trophy.

“It’s so fancy,” Mikulak said admiringly. “I’m definitely going to rock it. I’ll pull it out for very special occasions, and then I’ll showcase it elsewhere.”

No one was able to overcome Russia’s Nikita Nagornyy as he romped to his first World all-around gold, ahead of friend and teammate Artur Dalaloyan, the 2018 World champion, amassing 88.722 points to Dalaloyan’s 87.165. Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev, the 2016 Olympic all-around silver medalist, captured his first World all-around medal with bronze.

The USA’s Yul Moldauer, after a year that has seen him overcome numerous injury setbacks, showed six clean routines to finish 16th overall with 82.330. And like Mikulak, Moldauer was able to see the Worlds sunny side up.

“I have to take a step back and just be like, ‘hey, I made it to this day,’” said Moldauer, who has dealt with elbow and ankle problems, as well as a virus that affected his fitness, before Worlds. “I went out there and did six for six. Yeah, they weren’t the best routines of my life, but that’s part of gymnastics. You’ve got to learn from it, you’ve got to put it under your belt and look forward.”

Mikulak has one more chance at a medal in Sunday’s high bar final, which happens to fall on his 27th birthday. He potentially plans to upgrade one of his release moves, adding a full twist to his layout Tkatchev on high bar, in an attempt to boost his start value. It would be one more roll of the dice for the 2018 World high-bar bronze medalist, but Mikulak is grateful to have the shot.

“Today wasn’t my day, but I’ve got another opportunity, and I’m blessed to have that after qualifications,” he said. “It feels good to bounce back from that.”