No Worries: Sam Mikulak Defends His U.S. Title

By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 24, 2014, 9:26 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) John Orozco (silver), Sam Mikulak (gold) and Jake Dalton (bronze) stand atop the podium at the 2014 P&G Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 24, 2014 in Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH -- Sam Mikulak had a big problem on Friday night.

It wasn’t that he’d opened his all-around title defense with a dud earlier in the evening at the P&G Gymnastics Championships. It wasn’t that he’d have to overcome a 2.35-point deficit on Sunday to repeat.

No, the biggest worry on Mikulak’s mind was a missing gym bag.

“If I didn’t have my grips,” he said, “I would definitely be out of it today.”

Mikulak eventually found his bag in the drug testing room at the Consol Energy Center, and the rest is history.

The best, most consistent and most chill U.S. gymnast over the past two seasons proved himself again, slowly but surely chipping away at that deficit Sunday until he finally overcame it in the final rotation. His two-day score of 180.650 edged that of his 2012 Olympic teammate John Orozco, the Day-1 leader, who ended with 180.200.

“I always like intense situations,” said Mikulak, who scored higher on all six events Sunday than he did on Friday. “I always like having that adrenaline rush and putting on a show for everyone. It just kind of comes naturally where it’s like, ‘All right, you’re up, let’s go and have fun and show everyone how hard I’ve been working in the gym.’”

Added Orozco, “Everything he does seems so effortless.”

If there’s one thing that gymnastics fans should know by now about Mikulak, it’s that the Southern Californian isn’t easily rattled. That showed on Friday night.

After finding his bag, he joined his parents and girlfriend for a late dinner and didn’t think much of his mistakes. Even his coach, Kurt Golder, said he gave Mikulak a pep talk more out of protocol than necessity.

“He’s a very self-confident guy, you don’t have to build his confidence,” Golder said. “I know I don’t have to say a word, but I just feel as a coach I should reassure him.”

That confident gymnast returned on Sunday. He opened with a strong routine on parallel bars, one of the events in which he flubbed on Friday, and continued rolling. Without making a major mistake all day, the Newport Coast, California, native scored 92.250 points, 4.150 more than he did on Day 1. Mikulak, who also won the U.S. pommel horse title, became the first U.S. man to repeat as all-around champion since Jonathan Horton in 2009 and 2010.

The meet still came down to the wire, though. Going into the 12th and final rotation of the competition, the top three gymnasts were separated by just 1.55 points, with fellow 2012 Olympians Jake Dalton and John Orozco sandwiching Mikulak.

Mikulak went first. Knowing the implications, he was — what else? — relaxed as he ran down the runway to perform a vault he had been doing since high school. After setting the mark with a score of 14.950 points, he watched as Dalton struggled to a 13.100 score on pommel horse and as Orozco fell short with his score of 15.000 on floor exercise.

Soon after Orozco ended his routine with a few small hops, Mikulak’s comeback was complete.

“I’m just happy to come out on top and to be able to put on such an awesome performance today and be able to show the fans how hard I have been working and (show) everyone exactly what I’ve been trying to accomplish this whole year,” he said.

The win is the latest highlight in a dream year for Mikulak. In April, he wrapped up his college gymnastics career at Michigan by winning his seventh individual NCAA title, tying the record, and leading the Wolverines to a team title defense at their home arena. Mikulak’s NCAA all-around title was his third in four years.

This summer, he joined a friend from California and Germany Olympian Fabian Hambuechen for a 10-day foray across Europe. They trained in Germany and Italy and also went to Switzerland, where Mikulak bungee jumped out of a gondola 400 feet over a lake.

“It was pretty incredible,” he said. “It was such an adrenaline rush.”

The next step for Mikulak gymnastics-wise is a trip to China in October for the world championships. Last year, Mikulak was in all-around medal contention until the last event, high bar, when he struggled and dropped to sixth.

“My whole goal is to be world all-around champion,” he said. “I still think I have some ways to go when it comes to start value, but I’m going to chip away as much as I can and keep pushing for that dream.”

In the meantime, he’s headed back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he has one more year of classes. He plans to continue training there one year after graduating.

Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.