BOSTON – Sam Mikulak is back in his usual spot at the U.S. men’s gymnastics championships. He’s not so sure that’s a good thing.
The four-time champion overcame a pair of miscues on high bar and pommel horse to post an all-around score of 85.150 during the opening round Thursday, more than a point clear of Akash Modi (84.1) and comfortably ahead of Allan Bower, Donothan Bailey, Alec Yoder and defending champion Yul Moldauer.
Mikulak isn’t complaining about his spot atop the leaderboard. He’ll take it. He just wishes getting there required something close to his best gymnastics. It didn’t during two-plus hours of competition that was largely solid if unspectacular at best and unfocused and sloppy at worst.
“I think the fact I’m in first right now speaks that it wasn’t too good of a day for anyone,” Mikulak said.
Mikulak arrived at the new Boston Garden looking to recapture the form he showcased from 2013-16, when he won four consecutive crowns to stamp himself as the best of his generation. An Achilles injury limited him to just one event at 2017 nationals, opening the door for Moldauer to end Mikulak’s reign.
Moldauer and the rest of the field welcomed the chance to face Mikulak at full strength, though both entered the event not quite 100 percent after developing back issues over the last two weeks. While Moldauer fought through considerable pain and struggled at times, Mikulak woke up Thursday with his back feeling as good as it has in a while.
All of which made his miscues all the more frustrating. The two-time Olympian has the most difficult routines among his peers and his start values provide him some wiggle room should he need it. And he needed it after flubs on high bar and pommels.
Mikulak’s high bar set is an ambitious mix of daring releases and intricate technical work that comes with a high risk and high reward if he can pull it off. This time, he couldn’t. He came off early after missing a release to mar a routine he typically breezes through.
“I don’t think I’ve missed that skill in six months,” Mikulak said. “I was just like, `Oh well, we’ll just do it again and get over the hump.”
With the other competitors in his rotation shouting “keep working,” Mikulak recovered to score 13.7, well off his best but still the fourth highest of the night. That’s part of the problem.
The men’s national team is in the midst of a generational change. The world championships this fall will represent their first major test together, with Mikulak the lone holdover from the 2016 Olympic team that finished a disappointing fifth. Nobody really looked ready to compete at the highest level.
“We don’t really want Team USA to look like we all did today at the world stage,” Modi said. “Not that everybody looked very bad, but it was not sharp. It was not the crisp and polished gymnastics we want to be known for.”
Mikulak rebounded to put together a smooth floor routine before pommels – where he is often hit or miss – presented more problems. Though he pantomimed his routine over while waiting to salute the judges, he still came off early and finished with a 13.650.
“I was just like, `What are you doing?“’ Modi said. “I can’t really be mad because it’s the weirdest thing.”
It also put him in unusual territory. Mikulak typically struggles on the opening day of nationals only to roar back during the finals to win. This time, he’ll head to Saturday well in front as he tries to become the sixth man to win five national titles. Mikulak is less concerned about chasing history and more concerned about looking like he’s ready to compete at the highest level.
“In a way I just feel like I need to do better than today,” Mikulak said. “I think really that’s my mindset right now. I don’t feel that should be hard to do. Everything but floor was not good. I’ve got a lot to make up.”
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