KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Sam Mikulak is well on his way to a sixth U.S. men’s gymnastics title. He’s just not quite so sure that’s a good thing.
While the two-time Olympian was relatively pleased with his performance Thursday night, when his all-around score of 86.750 gave him a 2.750-point lead over 2017 national champion Yul Moldauer, Mikulak would prefer to have a little more heat on him heading into Saturday’s finals.
Mikulak intentionally watered down his routines to avoid the kind of big opening night mistakes that have plagued him in the past. It worked. Save for a step out of bounds on his vault, he was dominant. His score of 15.350 on parallel bars was the best of the night on any apparatus. It means he won’t have to put together a big rally if he wants to tie Makoto Sakamoto for the second-most national championships in history.
It also means, however, that nobody else in the field came close to matching him on a night when the 26-year-old mostly kept it in neutral. Not exactly the best development with the selection camp for the 2019 world championship team a month away.
“I do kind of wish there was a lot more nipping at my heels in a way,” Mikulak said. “Especially doing downgraded (routines) today. It is a bit of a struggle. I know all these guys and I kind of know what’s going on behind the scenes as well. It’s a lot of injuries.”
Colin Van Wicklen withdrew after sustaining a concussion during warm-ups. Matt Wenske placed eighth but was forced to withdraw after hurting his ankle on vault. Moldauer’s health issues over the last year have included a back injury and elbow problems. Donnell Whittenburg, an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team who is attempting to get his career back on track, has a myriad of concerns, from his shoulder to his knees.
Whittenburg put together perhaps his best competition in well over a year until a shaky high bar set in which he nearly came flying off. Though he managed to save it, his score of 11.850 dropped him to seventh overall. Wearing an eye-catching white Jordan brand headband, Whittenburg still believes he took a positive step forward.
Asked if he began making a compelling case to receive an invitation to the world team selection camp in September, Whittenburg nodded even while allowing much work remains to be done.
“I definitely have,” Whittenburg said. “I know if I do my very best, there’s nothing they can say at this point. But for me I didn’t. So if I didn’t do as best as I can, I feel like that always gives (the committee) questions about like ‘What if? What if? what if?’ For me, I feel like for Saturday I need to try and hit all my routines the best as I can.”
He’s hardly the only one. Moldauer technically hit all six of his routines, but four of them contained wobbles or form breaks that cost him.
“I can’t blame it on anyone else but myself,” Moldauer said. “It’s knowing what you need to improve. Look at the score and look at it in a positive way even though it’s lower than usual, there’s always something you can do to make it better.”
The same goes for the rest of the group behind Mikulak that is hoping to make what will likely be a very young five-man world championship team.
“I do wish we had a lot more of the high-level difficulty that we had pre-2016 (Olympics) but we got what we got,” Mikulak said. “I’m just hoping everyone can catch a little bit more of a rhythm and get some more confidence going into Day 2.”
That won’t be a concern for Mikulak. Even with a massive lead, he has no plans on coasting to the finish. He picked up his first world championship medal last fall when he won a bronze on high bar. Now on the back half of a solid career that he admits hasn’t always lived up to its considerable potential, he is going to put together significant upgrades for Saturday, well aware that it will be required when the stage and the stakes get bigger in October.
“I have a little bit of leeway,” Mikulak said. “I proved to the committee, ‘Hey, consistent Sam can do these easy routines and still score well. Let’s see what event finalist Sam can do going into Saturday.'”
The rest of the field hopes it can put up a fight.
“Everyone wants to beat Sam,” Moldauer said. “He’s the top dog in the U.S. and you know, everyone is trying to get to his level and stuff. But you can’t blame him. He’s a veteran. He’s a pro. He’s been in multiple Olympics, you’ve got to give him respect and just kind of follow his steps.”
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