HARTFORD, Conn. -- He’s already been called “the rock” for his steady performance this weekend. With all the attention Sam Mikulak attracted, he might be ready to be called “the refrigerator,” too.
No matter where Mikulak went Sunday at the 2013 P&G Gymnastics Championships at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., camera phones discreetly rose from purse pockets while the higher-powered NBC handheld TV camera hovered nearby, all the lenses drawn like magnets to the newest star of U.S. gymnastics.
Mikulak, a 20-year-old from Newport Coast, Calif., and the reigning NCAA champion from the University of Michigan, became the fourth U.S. men’s all-around champion in four years Sunday after running away with a 181.400 two-day score. His 2.900 margin of victory over a field that included three of his four 2012 Olympic teammates was the second largest in event history since the new scoring format was implemented in 2006.
“It was a great meet,” Mikulak said. “I felt a lot of energy from everyone, from the team, from the crowd, and I think that all helped to push me to do quite well.”
With his sun-kissed skin, boyish looks and laid-back Southern California charm, Milulak had already developed a teenage-idol-like following among young female gymnastics fans. With his victory this weekend, that following is only going to grow.
Mikulak cruised through the opening day Friday with such rock-solid steadiness that Horton, his 2012 Olympic teammate, greeted Mikulak after as “The rock himself.”
“He can’t make a mistake,” Horton said of Mikulak’s 91.650-point first night in which he hit all six routines and held a 2.950 lead in the all-around standings.
Though it would have taken a disaster for Mikulak to lose his lead after Day 1, he came back stronger on Day 2. Mikulak was on pace to better his score from Day 1 until the pesky last event. On his 12th and final event, the notoriously fickle pommel horse, Mikulak finally lost his focus and fell twice. Without the falls, Mikulak almost certainly would have blown away Horton’s margin-of-victory record.
“He wanted to win this championship, and he wasn’t going to let up until it was over,” Kurt Golder, Mikulak’s coach at Michigan, said.
“My goal was actually 12 for 12 (in hit routines),” Mikulak said. “11 for 12, I’ll take it.”
Mikulak’s rise represents a positive trend for USA Gymnastics. After Horton’s back-to-back U.S. titles in 2009 and 2010, Danell Leyva raised the bar by winning the 2011 title only to have John Orozco step up and unseat Leyva in 2012. Those four gymnasts — Mikulak, Horton, Leyva and Orozco — made up the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team along with Jake Dalton.
Horton, at age 26, was the only 2012 Olympian older than 20, and of the London Olympians he was the only one not competing this weekend. But Horton, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, said he considered competing in a few events this weekend and will for sure be back in 2014.
“I keep saying this every year but it’s true, we keep getting better,” Horton said after watching competition Friday. “This is the best U.S. team we’ve ever had. Everybody looks really good.”
Although Mikulak, Leyva and Orozco are now the leaders and the future of U.S. men’s gymnastics, the P&G Gymnastics Championships left more questions for the latter two.
The United States can bring up to six athletes to the FIG World Championships, scheduled for Sept. 30-Oct 6 in Antwerp, Belgium, but neither Leyva nor Orozco leave Hartford with a rock-solid invitation coming.
Orozco, competing in his first full meet since October surgery to repair a torn ACL, struggled with fitness at times over the weekend, but a strong second day and strong performances on the high bar and parallel bars bounced him to fourth in the all-around after ending Day 1 in eighth.
Only two U.S. gymnasts can compete in the world championships all-around competition, which might be a stretch at this point in Orozco’s recovery, but he could be a contender in both bars events.
Leyva, when on, has proven to be among the world’s best as evidenced by the Olympic all-around bronze medal he earned last summer in London. But unlike some of his Olympic teammates, Leyva didn’t take a lengthy break from competition after the Olympic Games, and he showed plenty of rust in an up-and-down performance this weekend. He finished seventh in the all-around.
With no team component at the world championships this year, the U.S. selection committee could go in any number of directions. Dalton confirmed his spot among the best with a top-three all-around finish. But while Olympians Leyva and Orozco are young and have proven success on the top level, Olympic alternates Alexander Naddour (pommel horse) and Steven Legendre (floor exercise) each won events this weekend, while Brandon Wynn, a rings specialist, won that event.
Those questions will be answered soon enough. On Sunday, it was a celebration of Mikulak’s continued rise.
After a promising junior career, Mikulak had his senior-level breakout last summer, propelling him all the way to the Olympic team. He sandwiched that between NCAA all-around titles in 2011 and 2013.
With that success has come increased attention, which will only continue with a good performance at world championships, but Golder says that success and attention hasn’t changed Mikulak’s attitude or approach.
“Just what you see out in the competition where he’s having fun, real loose and everything, that’s what he is in practice too,” Golder said. “It’s a perfect combination.”
Now Mikulak will likely bring that perfect combination to Antwerp in hopes that he brings a world championship back to Ann Arbor, Mich., for his senior year.
“I believe I can,” he said. “I’m not going to sell myself short there, that’s going to be the goal. You go to those meets to win, and we’re going to have as much fun as we can in the process.”
Chrös McDougall has covered Olympic sports for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.