Recording the top score on three of the six events — floor exercise, parallel bars and high bars — Mikulak took a provisional lead with 86.750 points, putting him in enviable position to claim a sixth U.S. championship when the men’s event concludes Saturday night.
“My plan coming into this competition,” Mikulak explained, “was, ‘Let’s not throw in the upgrade. Let’s do the easiest sets I can get away with. Let’s be clean, be confident, build some momentum from Day 1 and leave it all out on the floor like I know how on Saturday.”
Oklahoma’s Yul Moldauer, the only man other than Mikulak to claim a U.S. championship since 2013, stands in second with 84.000. Moldauer won the all-around title in 2017. Another pair of collegians — Minnesota’s Shane Wiskus and Stanford’s Akash Modi — are tied for third (83.950).
Baltimore native Donnell Whittenburg, an alternate on the U.S. men’s team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, is seventh (81.100) — an encouraging sign following what has been a slow recovery from major shoulder surgery in November 2017.
Whittenburg, 24, said he was “somewhat pleased” with his performance but felt he could do better.
“I have to pace myself,” Whittenburg said. “Once I rush, that’s when weird things start to happen. You don’t want to rush too soon; you don’t want to get too antsy. You have to make sure you’re doing enough preparation to hit that next step. As I’m getting older, I realize that now. First things first.”
The gymnasts will perform the same routines on the six apparatus again Saturday, with scores from each night added for the final score.
The highly anticipated women’s competition gets underway Friday night, when reigning Olympic all-around champion Simone Biles launches her pursuit of what would be a sixth U.S. championship. Mikulak and Biles are the only former Olympians in the field.
No one will lock up a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team based on their results at this year’s U.S. championships. But it’s an important piece of the puzzle in earning a spot in the 2019 world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in October, as well as a gauge of skill and mettle roughly one year in advance of Tokyo.
The U.S. men’s gymnasts haven’t enjoyed the success of the U.S. women in international competition over the past decades.
The U.S. men finished fifth in the team competition at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics. They placed fourth at last fall’s world championships in Doha, Qatar, where Mikulak claimed his first individual world medal, a bronze on the high bar.