INDIANAPOLIS -- A belly flop off the high bar barely slowed Sam Mikulak down from winning his third straight national title Sunday at the P&G Gymnastics Championships.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that each of the other top five all-arounders from the first night of competition also fell off the bar during an odd series of events over the first three rotations.
More important, though, was that Mikulak was strong nearly everywhere else.
Two nights after hitting five strong routines on the opening night of competition, Mikulak again hit five of his six routines in Day 2 to easily win the national title. His 183.65 points outpaced second-place Donnell Whittenburg by 4.35 points, setting the biggest margin of victory at the meet since the current code of points went into place in 2006. With his victory, Mikulak became the first gymnast to win three consecutive U.S. all-around titles since Paul Hamm did so from 2002-04.
Mikulak and Whittenburg both finished top-three in three events to hit the criteria for automatic qualification to the world championships in October in Glasgow, Scotland. The other four team members and up to three alternates will be named by Monday afternoon.
“It’s fantastic to come out on top,” he said. “I still didn’t live up to my own expectations of how I wanted to perform, but coming out on top is always a good feeling and I’m just glad I was able to stay healthy and get through this competition and present myself in a professional manner.”
Mikulak has been at the forefront of U.S. men’s gymnastics since his 2012 run to the U.S. Olympic Team. While his Olympic teammates struggled with inconsistency and injuries after London, Mikulak stayed sharp, winning the national titles and registering the top U.S. all-around finishes at the 2013 and ’14 world championships.
The Mikulak competing this weekend in Indianapolis had a new look and new attitude, though.
His storied college career at Michigan — three NCAA all-around titles, two NCAA team titles — ended in 2014. After staying in Ann Arbor to train for the next year, Mikulak moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, this past May to train with other elite gymnasts at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
The move was part of a larger change in his approach to the sport.
Easygoing almost to a fault in the past, Mikulak could go out and make one difficult routine look effortless and then have a mental lapse on the next.
That’s what happened last year, when Mikulak fell on the high bar at the NCAA championships and had two major mistakes on the first day of competition at the U.S. championships. Both times he was able to overcome those mistakes to win titles.
But that inconsistency wasn’t working out quite as well at the world championships. More mistakes at last year’s event dropped him to 12th place, after finishing sixth the year before.
Instead of taking the next step to the podium, he was standing still.
So Mikulak decided to go to Colorado and reasses his game plan.
“I think the biggest change is my expectations of myself,” he said. “I’m trying to be more of an elite athlete instead of a slap-happy college kid.”
That meant taking a new approach to competition day.
“It’s saluting and then cheering,” he said. “It’s not getting super rowdy every time you hit a routine. It’s focusing on making the elements you might not focus on as much.”
Outside the gym, he’s also taking 15 minutes out of every day to meditate.
The results of those changes this weekend in Indianapolis weren’t perfect, but Mikulak bettered his all-around scores from the past two U.S. championship campaigns by more than two points.
The next step will be in Glasgow, where Mikulak will be going for his first individual world medal. The U.S. team finished second in the last two world team competitions, in 2013 and 2011.
"What I’ve learned a lot is that I need to be not just a team competitor, but compete individually and for myself,” he said. “That’s kind of what the move to Colorado has been a lot about. Finding my own inner strength and not relying on people cheering me on and having that college setting and that really rowdy feeling.
“That’s what I’ve been focusing on a lot with my mediation, just finding the motivation within me and being able to bring that out in competition.”