Sam Mikulak celebrating after he competes on high bars during the men's team final at the 2019 FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on Oct. 9, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany.
Offered a clean slate, the U.S. men’s gymnastics team accepted it, enthusiastically.
Two days after a near-disastrous performance in the qualification round, the U.S. performed confidently through all six rotations on Wednesday to claim fourth place at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. This marks the second year in a row that the U.S. men have finished fourth.
The top three teams remained the same as last year, though in a different order. Russia won with 261.726 points, followed by last year’s champion China with 260.729. Japan finished third again with 258.159 points, while the U.S. scored 254.578 points.
The win was Russia’s first men's team title at the world championships since the fall of the Soviet Union. China had won 11 of the 13 team world titles since the Soviet Union last won in 1991.
A turnaround for Team USA was always going to hinge on Sam Mikulak.
On Monday, the team’s most accomplished gymnast – he’s a two-time Olympian and six-time U.S. all-around champ – was off his game, falling four times across six routines and just barely earning the last of 24 spots in Friday’s all-around final. His rocky qualifying performance, combined with two more falls from his teammates, resulted in the Americans finishing seventh as a team, a little too close for comfort when eight teams advance to the final.
The good news for Team USA was that qualification scores are thrown out, with every team starting fresh in the final. The potentially precarious twist, however, is that teams put up three gymnasts per event in the finals, with all three scores counting, whereas four gymnasts compete in qualifying with the lowest score thrown out.
In other words, there’s even less room for errors like those on Monday.
The U.S. made sure that last part didn’t matter.
Behind a night-and-day performance from Mikulak, the Americans competed with an edge and confidence not seen on Monday.
That became evident during the second rotation, when the U.S. hit all three routines on parallel bars. Mikulak, who had an uncharacteristic fall on the event in qualifying, was rock solid, scoring 15.200 points. That would have been the highest score during the qualifying round.
Teammates Trevor Howard, Akash Modi, Yul Moldauer and Shane Wiskus joined in on the momentum as the U.S. went through all six rotations without any major errors.
Although the top three teams have separated themselves from the field, Team USA was strong throughout, posting the second-best combined score on high bar and the third-best score on parallel bars and floor exercise.
Mikulak, the only U.S. gymnast to compete on all six events, posted an all-around score of 86.931, which was more than five points higher than his score on Monday and would have been second in qualifying. If he can hit a similar score on Friday he should be a contender to reach the all-around podium for the first time at an Olympic Games or world championships. He’s also slated to compete in the high bar final on Sunday, which falls on his 27th birthday.
For the U.S. team, this marks the second year in a row finishing just off the podium. The Americans last reached the medal stand in 2014, when they finished third.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.