Some 20 minutes after Sam Mikulak wrapped up his day 1 outing at these U.S. Gymnastics national championships on Thursday night, the two-time Olympian wanted to make one thing clear: That was hardly his best.
He led in the all-around competition, sure, but at this event last year, he fell twice and was forced to make a comeback on the second day. So this year, he wanted to play it safe, make sure he completed each routine soundly, even if that meant sacrificing some in the points department.
That Mikulak still managed to maintain the lead revealed something about his talent level, which he unleashed in full for the finale Saturday night at Sprint Center.
The all-systems-go mentality was just what Mikulak needed to win the men’s portion of the national championships, giving the 26-year-old a record-tying sixth national title with a total all-around score of 174.150.
Mikulak won gold in four events: the floor, pommel horse, high bars and parallel bars, which helped him win the all-around title by a relatively comfortable 5.555 points.
“You could probably make the argument,” Mikulak said, “that this is the easiest time period for USA Gymnastics for a guy like me, so it doesn’t hold as much (value) to it right now, but with that being said, I do see this competition as a stepping stone — not to downplay how awesome it is, but I’ve done this a couple times. I’m ready for bigger aspirations.”
This title will do well to supplement Mikulak’s resume, which is plenty dazzling: six U.S. national titles — which ties Makoto Sakamoto for the most all time — on top of two fifth-place team finishes at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, gold medals as a team and in the all-around at the 2015 Pan American Games as well as back-to-back NCAA all-around titles at Michigan.
This finish, though, will also play a pivotal role in his chances of advancing to the 2019 world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in October.
If you take nothing else from that, remember this: The American men have enjoyed just a fraction of the international success the women have (see: Simone Biles), so Mikulak, who snared his first international world medal with a bronze on the high bar in Doha, Qatar, last fall, may be able to help shift that reality.
Yul Moldauer, who won the 2017 national title, secured the silver medal, finishing second on Saturday with an all-around score of 168.600, while Stanford gymnast Akash Modi claimed the all-around bronze with a 168.250 score.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect to do that well here,” Moldauer said. “I had to take four to six weeks off due to an injury, so I didn’t know where I was going to be at in the field. There were a lot of great guys. Getting second is good, but I feel like we all should be pushing to be more competitive with Sam.”
For Mikulak’s part, he hasn’t lost track of his six titles, not any of them.
So which one meant the most?
“I think this one feels the best,” Mikulak said, “because I feel so much more comfortable. Back in the day, I was working through a lot of tweaks and trying to figure out a lot with myself personally, and how to get my head into the right state of mind for these competitions. Last year, I feel like I finally got a rhythm, and this year, I’ve been able to perfect it a little bit more.”
Mikulak may have stolen the show, but Colt Walker and Taylor Burkhart owned the afternoon.
Burkhart, an incoming junior in Boca Raton, Fla., brought home the all-around title for the first junior men’s session (ages 15-16), winning gold in both the vault and parallel bars. His final all-around score: 80.050.
Walker did the same in the second junior men’s session, for ages 17-19, in a strikingly similar way. En route to a total 80.250 all-around score to win the title, the incoming high school senior secured the gold in the vault and parallel bars.
Walker, naturally, said the accolades meant tons. But there was another side he liked.
“For me, it means all of this is over,” Walker said. “It’s a lot of stress. But it’s all worth it in the end — what I put my body through, my mental state. We’re here. It put me on top.”
The championship meet will wrap up on Sunday, when the junior women will compete for medals — West Virginia native Konnor McClain leads the field — followed by the women’s (senior) competition.
Simone Biles, who will head into the finale with the lead, is going for what would be a record sixth national title.
The juniors will begin competition at 1 p.m., followed by the seniors at 6:30 p.m.