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Can Sam Be The Man?

By Chrös McDougall | Oct. 08, 2014, 1:21 p.m. (ET)

Sam Mikulak reacts after competing on the floor exercise at the 2014 P&G Gymnastics Championships at Consol Energy Center on Aug. 22, 2014 in Pittsburgh.

Sam Mikulak competes on the floor exercise during the team final at the 2014 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships on Oct. 7, 2014 in Nanning, China.

Talent? Sam Mikulak’s got it. Results? It’s hard to argue with the past two U.S. all-around titles and three of the last four NCAA all-around titles.

Luck? That depends.

Some might say Mikulak is unlucky. That would explain his two broken ankles in the summer of 2011, his fall on high bar and uncharacteristically poor rings performance at this year’s NCAA championships, or his sloppy first day at the P&G Gymnastics Championships that left him 2.35 points behind the leader going into Day 2.

But others might argue Mikulak is lucky. That would explain his unlikely record of redemption against long odds:

  • His ankles recovered in time for him to unexpectedly make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team

  • His other four routines at the NCAA meet resulted in an uncompetitive 1.9-point one-day all-around win

  • And his valiant comeback in Day 2 at the P&G Championships in August in Pittsburgh was enough to defend his national title, edging John Orozco 180.65 to 180.2

Whether he’s unlucky, lucky or just really, really talented, Mikulak has proven to be able to overcome obstacles and mistakes to thrive on the NCAA and national level. He’ll need to take luck and mistakes out of the equation if he is to translate that success to the world level.

“My whole goal is to be world all-around champion,” the former University of Michigan gymnast said after the P&G Championships.

The Southern California native will have a chance to do so on Thursday, when he competes in the all-around final at the 2014 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Nanning, China. On Tuesday, Mikulak competed in three events as the U.S. team won a bronze medal.

Mikulak’s arrival on the world stage was supposed to come last year.

He arrived at the world championships as the national champion and bona fide star for the United States. Mikulak ranked second in the all-around qualifying round. After five of six rotations in the final, he sat solidly in third place. All he had to do was hit his high bar routine — he had the fourth-best qualifying score — and he’d likely have won the United States’ first world all-around medal since Jonathan Horton finished third in 2010.

But this is Mikulak. Remember the history.

An uncharacteristically poor performance saw Mikulak break form midway through his routine. Moments later, he lost all momentum and had to do what amounted to a pushup on the bar so he could regroup. When he finally started swinging again six seconds later, it was over.

Mikulak’s high bar score dropped him to sixth place in the final all-around standings. He’d need to wait until this year to change his luck.

Most of 2014 has so far gone as planned for Mikulak. Despite some hiccups in his first two championship meets this year, Mikulak’s record book continued filling up pages.

At the national championships, he brought home the all-around and pommel horse titles. Five months earlier, at the NCAA championships, held in front of the home crowd in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Mikulak defended the all-around title, led the Wolverines to its first ever title defense in the team competition and also claimed the parallel bars title. The latter was his seventh individual win, tying an NCAA record.

Now it’s time for Mikulak to show that form on the world level.

So far the world championships have been up and down.

In qualifying on Saturday, Mikulak performed well enough to make the all-around finals, but his score of 87.665 was good only for 17th place. U.S. teammate and world championships newcomer Donnell Whittenburg also made the finals, his score of 89.631 being good for fourth place.

Yet in team finals, Mikulak performed strongly in his three events: pommel horse, vault and floor exercise.

Winning an all-around title in Nanning will be a tall task for all of the competitors as long as Kohei Uchimura is on the podium. The Japanese has won every world all-around title since 2009 (including the 2012 Games) and might have already secured “best ever” status in the sport.

As gymnasts always say, though, they can’t control how others perform, so they just want to perform at their best. If Mikulak can do that on Thursday, he should have the talent — if not always the luck — to make the podium.

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

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