ST. LOUIS -- One of these days, Sam Mikulak is going to put it all together. The United States’ preeminent men’s gymnast is going to hit all six of his routines, and it’s going to be brilliant.
For now, though, fans will have to settle for the same old story: Mikulak makes a simple mistake only to power through the rest of his routines and eke out a win.
That was the case Thursday night in St. Louis, when Mikulak sat down on his parallel bars dismount and then survived a shaky high bar performance before rolling through his final four routines to end the first night at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Men’s Gymnastics in first place.
His all-around score of 90.65 was more than a point better than second place Chris Brooks’ 90.175. More importantly, his three-day total — combining with the P&G Gymnastics Championships earlier this month — also remained in first place, with a 272.150 to Brooks’ 269.025.
Those scores put Mikulak, the four-time defending U.S. all-around champion, in strong position to make his second U.S. Olympic Team when the competition wraps up on Saturday night.
But those missed routines also highlight a troubling trend.
“These competitions haven’t really been a true show of what I’ve been doing in the gym, and that’s why I’m a little more upset with the performance I had today,” said Mikulak, who says he’s back to full strength after surgery to repair a partially torn Achilles tendon last fall. “I feel ready to take that next step, to put on the performance on every event that I want to.”
It’s not the first time Mikulak has risen above his domestic competition with flawed performances.
In 2014, he successfully defended his U.S. all-around title despite a sloppy first day that left him with a 2.35-point deficit. His three-peat in 2015 came after five strong performances each night — not six. And Mikulak won his fourth consecutive U.S. title earlier this month by again overcoming a Day 1 deficit, this time because he stepped out of bounds on a floor exercise tumbling pass.
Even his first national title wasn’t perfect. Mikulak hit his first 11 routines only to fall twice on his final event, the pommel horse.
The mistakes frustrate Mikulak, but he’s not about to overreact.
“No,” he scoffs. He tried that while in college at Michigan, he says, but not anymore.
“I can really pick myself up,” said Mikulak, 23, who moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last year. “I make sure I learn from every experience, and I can apply it to make myself a better gymnast.”
The test of that will be Saturday night, after which the five-person Olympic team will be introduced.
A gymnast can make the team automatically by winning the all-around and placing top-three in three individual events over the combined P&G Championships and Olympic Trials. Mikulak ranks first in the pommel horse, third in parallel bars and fourth in vault. He says he’s not paying attention.
“Throughout this whole process its kind of chaos to focus on scores,” he said.
Instead he’s focusing on his execution. The Newport Coast, California, native explained his fall on parallel bars as overcompensating while reintroducing an old dismount, and he called his high bar flub a “technical mistake” in which he simply got ahead of himself.
“I was definitely mad. I was definitely mad,” he said. “It was time to put on a show.”
And so he did. In his third rotation, Mikulak delivered the signature floor exercise performance he’s been waiting for all season, and from there he was off, once again proving himself as the top U.S. gymnast.
“On floor, horse, rings and vault I was able to really take it one at a time and flair it out, and I thought those routines were very confident and I trusted in it,” he said.
Now he just needs to keep it up on Saturday — and a few weeks later, in Rio de Janeiro, where the competition won’t be as forgiving.
“I’m training great gymnastics and I can do great gymnastics,” he said. “I just need to put on the show that I know I can. It’s not the pressure; it’s not anything that’s going to stand out. I’m ready for it. I just need to go and do it.”