PITTSBURGH — Sam Mikulak isn’t much on regret. It’s just not his thing.
So there was no pep talk necessary after the easygoing Mikulak stumbled through the opening round of the U.S. men’s gymnastics championships on Friday. He blew it. He knew it. And he knew he had a chance at redemption in Sunday’s final.
“I guess I get over things pretty easily,” Mikulak said. “I’m always looking toward the future and stay in that moment.”
He certainly provided a memorable one in the finals. Electric at the start and relaxed at the finish, Mikulak surged past Jake Dalton and former champions John Orozco and Danell Leyva with six nearly flawless routines on the way to his second straight national title. Mikulak’s two-day total of 180.650 was just ahead of Orozco’s 180.200 and provided a healthy jumping off point for a U.S. men’s team searching for redemption at the world championships in October.
“It’s a long competition,” Mikulak said. “You can never count yourself out because once you start having negative thoughts, you just beat yourself up.”
There was no beating the 21-year-old Mikulak on a day in which he competed as if his sloppy miscues on parallel bars and floor exercise on Friday never happened.
Dalton led for much of Sunday before fading to third, followed by Donnell Whittenburg and Leyva, the 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist who is in the process of revitalizing his flagging career. Alex Naddour rounded out the top six, which will serve as the U.S. team at the 2014 world championships in Nanning, China from Oct. 3-13.
While Mikulak might have mentally hit control/alt/delete on his forgettable Friday, the evidence remained. He started Sunday a distant 2.3 points behind the early pace set by Orozco. It took all of a minute for the comeback to begin. Mikulak began the finals on parallel bars — the same event where a bad mix of chalk and honey had him treating the event like a slip-and-slide on Friday — and put up a 15.450 that served as the spark he needed to track down the leaders.
“Once I got into the rhythm of doing my routines it became second nature and muscle memory took over,”Mikulak said.
It led him to a familiar spot: the top of the podium. Mikulak has emerged as the best American all-arounder over the last two years, taking the moniker away from Orozco and Leyva after the emerging stars went through post-London letdowns. Orozco tore his left ACL in the fall of 2012 while Leyva has spent most of the last 24 months navigating personal issues that affected his confidence and briefly led him to ponder retirement.
Those thoughts are long gone for both.
Orozco’s bid for a second national title collapsed with a botched vault in which he bailed out because he was “scared,” but he recovered to produce an eye-popping 16.100 on high bar, the highest score in any event — men or women — during the four-day championships.
The performance gave Orozco an event gold to go with his all-around silver as the men spread the wealth. The six event golds went to six different gymnasts, proof the talent atop the U.S. men’s program is a bit more spread out than it is for the U.S. women, who will rely heavily on supernova Simone Biles at worlds.
While Biles will head to China with the weight of another world championship on her shoulders, the men have less pressure but more to prove.
Mikulak, Dalton, Orozco and Leyva were part of a group that headed to London with an outside shot of unseating Japan and China. It never happened. The U.S. dominated qualifying only to crater in the team finals, falling to fifth behind a group that included upstart Britain.
The Americans regrouped to win four individual medals at last year’s worlds, but China will be their first major meet together since walking off the O2 Arena floor in shock.
“Instead of losing guys after this, we gained the whole Olympic team and we’re still getting juniors and seniors coming in,” Dalton said. “It’s going to be a surprising year for a lot of people.”
Dalton hoped to start the surprises early. He moved into the lead quickly on Sunday but couldn’t hold on. He stepped awkwardly to the side after landing his vault and the resulting 14.700 opened the door for Mikulak.
Orozco’s vault was even worse. In an event that’s typically one of the highest scoring of the six disciplines, Orozco managed just a 13.500 when he failed to explode off the block. The low flight prevented him from getting through clean and a penalty ended his chance to reach the top of the podium for the first time since winning nationals a month before the 2012 Olympics.
While Orozco and Dalton faltered, Mikulak kept coming. He pumped his fists and flexed after a hit set on pommel horse, an event most American men struggle to master. That’s no longer a problem for Mikulak, whose two-day total of 30.600 on pommels was more than 1.5 points clear of the next highest finisher and provided the difference.
“He had some hiccups the first day but he can definitely turn the game on when he’s ready,” Dalton said of Mikulak. “I knew he was going to be up there.”