BOSTON -- Sam Mikulak bought a house, became a dog dad and moved in with his girlfriend, and he’s still the U.S. men’s gymnastics champion.
Now in his seventh season of senior elite gymnastics, Mikulak made changes both to his training and to his home life over the past year in an effort to stay fresh and engaged, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is that he’s still the best in the country — by a lot.
Mikulak posted the second highest score in the world this year on Saturday en route to claiming his fifth all-around win in six years at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
With a two-day score of 172.900 points at the TD Garden in Boston, Mikulak bested last year’s U.S. champ Yul Moldauer to win his fifth national title in six years. Only China's Xiao Ruoteng has scored higher this year than Mikulak’s 87.750 on Saturday.
Upon finishing for the night, Mikulak flexed and pumped his fists toward the crowd, an emotional release after what has been a trying few weeks of injuries and inconsistencies.
“This whole couple weeks has just been one thing after the next,” Mikulak said, “and for it to finally pay off and work, it was a big weight off my chest.”
Mikulak’s fifth national title was nearly a foregone conclusion after the first night of competition. Despite falls on the high bar and pommel horse, the two-time U.S. Olympian still led the field by more than a point, and his biggest competition, Moldauer, has been limited by a lower-back injury.
.@SamuelMikulak scores 172.900 to win his FIFTH ALL-AROUND NATIONAL TITLE. 💪💥#USGymChamps | #SCS2018 pic.twitter.com/f1jGvy8g2J— U.S. Olympic Team (@TeamUSA) August 18, 2018
Another performance like Thursday wasn’t going to satisfy Mikulak, though, and he didn’t repeat it. Although he actually scored slightly lower on Day 2 on floor, rings and vault, Mikulak avoided the simple mistakes that turn into big deductions, and then ended with a flourish by posting the meet’s top score on parallel bars (15.250) and high bar (14.700). No one else broke 15 on parallel bars or 14 on high bar.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself today because I did not want a similar performance as Thursday,” Mikulak said, “and I really wanted this day to be a proving myself type of day.”
Mikulak has been around the top level of the sport since 2012, when he debuted on the senior level and earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic Team. Ever since he’s been a constant in the men’s program, winning national titles every year except 2017, when he competed in just two events while recovering from an Achilles injury.
However, being the constant also has some drawbacks.
“I definitely feel like I’m getting older,” he said, “just because everyone is younger.”
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His struggles, too, have been well documented.
Although he’s competed in two Olympics and three world championships, he’s still searching for his first individual medal at either stage. And then there are the mistakes, like the ones that marred his first night in Boston. Though he always ends up with the national title, he seems to always make the process more difficult than it has to be.
Cue those lifestyle changes.
For all the time he spends tearing down his body in practice, Mikulak now tries to “counteract” that process with more time in the training room. Outside the gym, he’s taking steps to separate his emotions from his gymnastics, giving him more of a home line after his long days of training. That’s where the house and the girlfriend and the puppy, a pit bull terrier named Marshall, come in.
“I had the girlfriend and my whole family out there, I know my puppy was probably watching, too,” he said Saturday. “Just having a little support system that I feel like is progressing in life is just something that I can fall back on. In stressful times, it’s something that I can look towards and gives me a little more energy and a little more confidence and just makes me a little happier.”
That showed this weekend, where he became the sixth U.S. man to win five national all-around titles, and the first to do so since Blaine Wilson won five straight from 1996-2000. Mikulak’s winning margin of 4.75 points was also the highest of any of his five national titles.
But most promising, said U.S. men’s high-performance director and 2004 Olympian Brett McClure, is what preceded it.
That feeling when you go 6⃣-for-6⃣ in hit routines! 😁— U.S. Olympic Team (@TeamUSA) August 18, 2018
Congrats to your CHAMP, @SamuelMikulak! 🏆 #USGymChamps #SCS2018 pic.twitter.com/31vqYCJyLS
Saturday’s performance four months after Mikulak hit six-for-six at the Pacific Rim Championships in Colombia, scoring 87.700 points — the second-best score in the world until today’s score surpassed it — and claiming his first international all-around title in nearly three years.
“You’ve got to get him to do it once, and then see if he can do it again, and then see if he can do it again,” McClure said. “That’s the way it works in this sport. You just try to build on momentum.”
The goal, ultimately, is to do it again at the world championships, which begin Oct. 25 in Doha, Qatar.
Before Mikulak gets there, he’ll join seven other U.S. men at a selection camp in September, where they’ll perform two more all-arounds. Those scores will be combined with the ones from Boston, and gymnasts who finish among the top two in the all-around and the top three in three events will automatically qualify for worlds. Both Mikulak and Moldauer meet that criteria at the midway point.
Regardless, five gymnasts and one alternate will go to Doha, with a selection committee naming anyone who doesn’t qualify automatically.
Chances are one of them will be Mikulak, and if he can repeat what he did on Saturday, this time he might just win a medal.
“I can hope. There’s still a couple things I can improve on,” Mikulak said. “If I can go out and do this, I think I can make a very strong case for it.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.