BOSTON -- Sam Mikulak called the first day of competition at the 2018 U.S. Gymnastics Championships “kind of a wash,” and described five of his six performances as “not good.”
Yet he’s still in the lead by more than one point.
That’s how dominant the two-time Olympian is, even while competing in all-around at the national championships for the first time in two years.
Mikulak’s 85.150 was top of the field at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. 2016 Olympic alternate Akash Modi followed with an 84.100, while last year’s silver medalist, Allan Bower, is in third with 83.850. Reigning national champion and world floor bronze medalist Yul Moldauer is currently sixth.
The men will again compete all six events Saturday evening, after which national champions will be crowned in the all-around and six apparatuses, plus the national team will be named.
Mikulak’s first-place finish halfway through the competition means he’s one step closer to winning a fifth all-around national title, which would make him the first man to achieve that feat in 18 years.
His first four U.S. championships wins came consecutively from 2013-2016. After suffering a torn Achilles tendon in February 2017, Mikulak was only able to compete high bar and pommel horse at that year’s competition.
— U.S. Olympic Team (@TeamUSA) August 17, 2018
While his 1.05-point lead over Modi provides some cushion heading into the second day, it did not play out the way Mikulak wanted.
“Today wasn’t too hot, I had more mistakes than I would’ve expected to have,” Mikulak said. “I think this one will be real easy to forget about because you don’t want to think about that. So, being able to reset and prove myself a little more Saturday is – I’ve got a little bit of a fire going.”
The 25-year-old started his competition on rings, where he scored 14.350 for what would be the fourth highest score of the night. He then moved to vault, where he had loose leg form in the air but managed a strong landing, despite being off-center, and scored 14.400.
Next up was parallel bars, an event in which Mikulak already has three national titles. He continued to prove he’s the best, scoring 14.300 for the top score by 0.150. He earned the lead for the first time after that rotation. But then things began to unravel.
“High bar, I think I got a little antsy on that Cassina,” Mikulak said of his fall on the skill, which is a laid-out full-twisting double back.
“I was kicking myself in the butt because I don’t think I’ve missed that skill in probably six months. So I was like, well we’ll do it again and get over that hump. That routine is so easy for me I can just breeze through.”
Even with the fall his 13.700 tied him for fourth on high bar.
Floor was next, where he would seek and earn redemption, claiming the top score by 0.400 with a 14.750. He was visibly pleased with the routine – which he claimed was his only “good” performance – and began beckoning for the crowd to cheer more and more.
“I love playing off the energy, I just felt like we didn’t have any energy today,” he explained.
“I don’t know how everyone else was, but I think the fact that I’m in first right now speaks to it really wasn’t a good day for anyone, so I’m hoping we can all turn it up with a little more energy going into Saturday because we’ll have a bigger crowd and a little more energy and purpose to that one.”
Mikulak’s night ended on pommel horse, an event he’s placed top three in four times at nationals. But tonight he tied for seventh. His stomach touched the horse and he later fell off the apparatus.
— U.S. Olympic Team (@TeamUSA) August 17, 2018
“It was a really stupid mistake, so I was kicking myself in the butt,” Mikulak said. “Usually I step up left hand, right hand, and for some reason I went right hand, left hand. I was like, what are you doing? I can’t really be mad because it was the weirdest thing.”
Mikulak wasn’t fazed by the fact that he sits in first, noting that there must have been mistakes by other competitors if he leads the pack after his performances.
“You don’t want to win on a day like today,” he insisted. “I want to be able to slam routines and have it come down to the wire. That’s when it’s really exciting and intense because everyone’s doing their best and you want to beat people when they’re at their best, not because you’re the best loser.”
Having competed at two Olympic Games and three world championships, Mikulak is head and shoulders above the rest of the 35-man field in terms of his experience; he is the only Olympian and one of just three past world team members in the men’s competition in Boston.
He sees the current state of the team as a positive, though, saying what he likes best about the roster of athletes is “everyone’s hungry.” And with that in mind he sees the competition going differently for himself and his competitors Saturday.
“No one has gotten to the stage that they want in their career and everyone’s working really hard to get there, and I think that fuels a lot of their practices and really gives a lot more purpose instead of people who have had it for a while and have a little more entitlement.
“They’re really stoked to be competing and earning it.”