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Sam Mikulak grabs lead in men’s competition on opening day of U.S. Gymnastics championships at Sprint Center

See the opening action of the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships where competition got underway Thursday in Kansas City

See the opening action of the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships where competition got underway Thursday in Kansas City
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See the opening action of the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships where competition got underway Thursday in Kansas City

Sam Mikulak vaulted himself into the air and came tumbling down, and as he did, the oohs and ahhs had already started.

A smile washed over Mikulak’s face. The gymnast acknowledged the ecstatic Sprint Center crowd with a salute. His 15.350 score in the parallel bars spoke for itself.

With the performance, Mikulak vaulted himself into the top spot on the first day of the U.S. Gymnastics national championships men’s field on Thursday night.

When the night came to a close, Mikulak topped the men’s field with an all-around score of 86.750.

“That just felt like a normal routine,” Mikulak said of his parallel-bars performance. “I was like, ‘Hey, it’s crazy that I can come out to this competition and feel just as comfortable as I do when I’m in the gym. That realization hit me in that moment.”

Olympian Sam Mikulak leads the men's field after first day of nationals with an all-around score of 86.750.

Mikulak, an Olympian in both 2012 and 2016 — and the only Olympian in the men’s field at this championship meet — brought plenty of credentials into the meet.

On top of his Olympic experience, which includes a fifth-place team finish and a fourth-place finish in the horizontal bar at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Mikulak helped Team USA win gold at the 2015 Pan American Games, where Mikulak secured the bronze in both the floor exercise and parallel bars.

On Thursday, Mikulak recorded scores of 14.650 in the floor exercise, 14.750 in the pommel horse, 14.300 in the rings, 13.500 in the vault, 15.350 in the parallel bars and a 14.200 in the high bar.

That gave him a lead over second-place Yul Moldauer, a University of Oklahoma gymnast, who ended the day with an all-around mark of 84.000.

Shane Wiskus and Akash Modi (83.950 each) tied for third, and Ohio State gymnast Trevor Howard placed fifth, rounding out the top five after the first day of the men’s competition.

“It probably wasn’t the best performance I ever had,” Moldauer said. “I still can improve easily on rings, easily on floor, clean up the angles on high bar. My pommel just wasn’t my stop. At least I hit everything, but that just leaves more improvement for day two, which is kind of nice. You don’t want to always come in and rock the boat the first day, and then think you can rock even more the second day.”

The events for the second day of the championships, which are set to begin 1 p.m. on Friday, will feature the women’s competitions, in which local gymnasts Kara Eaker, Leanne Wong and Aleah Finnegan will compete.

In the first junior field (ages 15-16) on Friday, Seattle native Nicolas Kuebler had the lead with an all-around score of 79.600.

To get there, Kuebler used scores of 13.550 in floor exercise, 13.400 in the pommel horse, 12.650 in the rings, 13.650 in the vault, 13.200 in the parallel bars and 13.150 in the high bar.

“I actually didn’t expect I would do this well,” Kuebler said. “I thought I was going to do well. I always have to keep a good mindset. That’s, like, the No. 1 thing for me. I’m pretty happy that I’m first right now. But anything can happen, so I’ve got to keep focusing.”

Colt Walker had an all-around score of 80.100, good for the lead in the second junior division (ages 17-19).

After Mikulak completed his round in the men’s competition, a throng of young, adoring fans reached over the retaining wall in the stands to give him high-fives and pose for selfies.

“It’s fun. I love having a big, cheering crowd,” Mikulak said. “It shows that they believe in me, and that kind of faith really helps me put on a show. It gives me a lot of comfortability. It’s crazy — when you’re at the gym, and you’re in shape, and you’re just going through routine after routine, it’s hard to get that meaning and that feel, and say, ‘Hey, this really matters.’

“When I come out here, having these kids screaming and shouting, it’s like, ‘It matters. Do it for them, do it for yourself. Enjoy it, because this is when it actually counts, not all those days in the gym.’”

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