HARTFORD, Conn. — Sam Mikulak is a psychology major at Michigan mostly because he enjoys trying to figure people out.
Even on the day he accepted the mantle as the next great American gymnast, the breezy kid from southern California discovered he remains a work in progress.
Staked to such a massive lead he needed only to remain upright on pommel horse to capture the U.S. men’s all-around title Sunday, Mikulak told himself it would be OK if he eased off the gas.
“I thought that was going to make it easy,” Mikulak said. “I think it just made me lazy.”
And gave him plenty to think about as he prepares to take on the best in the world.
Twice Mikulak found himself sloppily cleaning up his own mess on pommels, and while he still had little trouble capturing the biggest title of his blossoming career, it was the one routine he failed to nail over two practically flawless days that will stick with him.
“Next time, I think I’ll just keep the edge,” Mikulak said.
Consider it a warning shot.
The 20-year-old established himself as a serious threat to reach the podium at the world championships in Belgium after putting together one of the most dominant performances in a championship that is five decades old.
Mikulak’s total of 181.400 points was nearly 3 points ahead of Alex Naddour and would have been substantially higher if not for that one last slipup.
In a way, that might not be a bad thing. The miscue gives Mikulak’s coach Kurt Golder plenty to work on with his star pupil as he prepares for a trip to Belgium in six weeks.
“This definitely means more pommel horse in the gym,” Mikulak said with a laugh. “It’s something you’ve got to push toward.”
Jake Dalton was third. Defending champion John Orozco finished fourth in his first major competition since undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee last October.
Danell Leyva, the all-around bronze medalist in London last summer, finished seventh.
Ultimately, the rest of a deep field was playing for second, and they knew it.
“I would have liked to catch up to Sam,” Dalton said. “I was hoping to hit my routines. I had a few mistakes. Once you had a few mistakes, you know you’re not going to be up there.”
Even if no American is quite in Mikulak’s league at the moment. Mikulak is undefeated in competition this year, the Big Ten and NCAA title this spring then backing it up by draining any drama out of the biggest meet since London.
Not ready to put things on cruise control after opening up a 2.950-point lead over Dalton on Friday night, Mikulak put on a show during in the finals, widening his advantage quickly.
Normally so laid back it looks as if he’s hanging out at the mall rather than competing at his sport’s highest level, Mikulak let loose as the day wore on. He pumped his fist several times after drilling his floor exercise routine.
“I was stoked,” Mikulak said. “Floor is more personal. You put more of yourself into it. It was fun to hit that one.”
A sentiment echoed by Naddour, who has resurrected his career a year after failing to make the Olympic team.
Considered a specialist on the pommel horse — an event the U.S. has struggled in for three decades —Naddour slipped by Dalton, the co-favorite, to cement a spot alongside Mikulak on the world championship team.
It’s sweet redemption for Naddour, who did some serious soul searching after struggling last summer.
He returned to Oklahoma to get his life together and has emerged on the other side as one of the country’s most complete gymnasts.
“I think that I’m in a better place in my life right now,” Naddour said. “I closed on my house and it’s nice to be settled in. It’s going to plan.”
Dalton, rings specialist Brandon Wynn and floor exercise champion Steven Legendre figure to join Naddour and Mikulak in Belgium. The sixth and final spot could come down to Orozco and Leyva.
The duo were the linchpins of the 2012 Olympic team but have taken very different paths since leaving London. Orozco tore the ACL in his left knee last fall.
This weekend marked his first all-around competition since leaving London and after shaking off some rust on Thursday, Orozco’s all-around score on Sunday (90.4) was second only to Naddour.
Leyva flubbed his way through pommel horse twice, but redeemed himself on parallel bars.
The 2011 world champion in the event posted a score of 15.650 on Sunday, easily the highest of the afternoon.
Even if Leyva or Orozco — or both — make the team, they will play a supporting role behind Mikulak.
The chilled out kid with the spiky hair has emerged from a crowded picture to become a legitimate threat to challenge Olympic champion Kohei Uchimura in Antwerp when qualifying begins on Sept. 30.
“I’ve got a few more (weeks) to prepare,” Mikulak said, “and I definitely think people should start watching out for me.”