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Sam Mikulak, seeking a sixth U.S. men’s gymnastics title, is eager to take on the world

Sam Mikulak has the lead heading into Saturday’s final day of men’s competition at the U.S. gymnastics championships. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Something akin to boy-band mania broke out when Sam Mikulak set the performance standard on the first of two nights of men’s competition at the U.S. gymnastics championships Thursday at Sprint Center.

“Sam, we love you!” an entire section of teenage girls shrieked, as if Mikulak were a fourth Jonas Brother whose passion was gymnastics rather than pop music.

Mikulak didn’t showcase his most ambitious routines, but the two-time Olympian achieved what he had hoped, taking a hefty lead midway through the competition. He remains favored to win his sixth U.S. all-around gold.

A natural showman who also happens to be the country’s best male gymnast, Mikulak, 26, indulged the tweens and teens who rushed to the front few rows of the arena’s partially filled lower bowl at competition’s end and shouted for him to come closer for photos.

“It’s fun having a big, cheering crowd,” said Mikulak, who obliged and borrowed one fan’s cellphone to take a group selfie with outstretched arm as his young fans squeezed into the frame. “It just shows they believe in me, and that kind of faith really helps me put on a show and gives me a lot of comfort.”

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For the past several years, Mikulak, of Newport Beach, Calif., has supplied the star power for the U.S. men’s gymnastics team, which has long been overshadowed by the higher-achieving American women. It has been 15 years since an American man won the all-around Olympic gold medal; Paul Hamm prevailed at the 2004 Athens Games. And it has been 35 years since the U.S. men won Olympic team gold (at the 1984 Los Angeles Games).

Oklahoma standout Yul Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. champion who is second to Mikulak heading into Saturday’s final, readily acknowledges that the U.S. women are the gold standard and the embodiment of what the American men aspire to be.

“They’re just so good,” Moldauer, 22, said of the reigning world and Olympic champions. “The guys’ team wants to be the women’s team. We want to be as successful as them.”

At the heart of the gap, Moldauer believes, is consistency and confidence.

Depth is another major factor. While gymnastics clubs across the country regularly churn out Olympic hopefuls on the women’s side, the ranks of NCAA men’s teams, the traditional feeder system for male Olympians, are winnowing.

Oklahoma, with 12 NCAA titles, is the powerhouse. Five Sooners, including Moldauer, are in the men’s field at the U.S. championships. (There were six before Colin Van Wicklen withdrew after suffering a concussion during warmups.)

Tied for third are Minnesota’s Shane Wiskus and Stanford’s Akash Modi. Iowa and Ohio State are also well represented. Apart from Mikulak’s personal cheering section, college fans supplied most of the spirit in the arena Thursday night.

“You know, men’s gymnastics isn’t the most popular sport,” Moldauer conceded. “Anytime we get fans either cheering for us or other people, it’s great. I’m excited for Day 2. I love competing in front of people. Honestly, it gives you energy and gets you amped.”

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For Mikulak, confidence isn’t a problem, at least outwardly.

The son of former gymnasts who competed at California, Mikulak was a Big Ten standout at Michigan and a member of the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic teams. He had a career breakthrough last fall, winning his first individual medal at the world championships in Qatar (a bronze on high bar).

On Thursday, his score of 15.350 on parallel bars was the best of the night on any apparatus.

“At this point, going for a sixth [all-around championship], I just feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin,” Mikulak said. “I’m sure of myself. I don’t have anything I’m second-guessing — no training plan that I think I should have been doing. I’ve found a rhythm, and I’ve really been able to perfect everything about my training leading up to these big competitions.”

At this one, Mikulak’s strategy included a conservative approach on the first night followed by a planned higher-risk program Saturday. Having shown USA Gymnastics officials that he can be a consistent, reliable performer, he wants to prove that he can contend for medals against international competitors — who, as a rule, perform more difficult routines.

Asked about his level of confidence in the leadership of USA Gymnastics, which filed for bankruptcy in December 2018 and is on its third president and chief executive in the wake of its mismanagement of the biggest sexual abuse scandal in sports history, Mikulak voiced support.

“They have given me a lot of opportunity, and they’ve done nothing to hurt me,” he said. “Right now, the only thing that is affecting us is the financials. Granted, if we didn’t have USAG, I don’t think anyone would be able to provide any better for us in this current state.”

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Young gymnasts in the mix

Kayla DiCello, a 15-year-old from Boyds who trains at Hill’s Gymnastics in Gaithersburg, is in second place after the first of two days of junior women’s competition. DiCello posted the top scores on vault and floor, and she was among the top four on beam and bars.

Anya Pilgrim, a 14-year-old teammate of DiCello’s at Hill’s, is sixth. Kelli Hill, the coach and owner of Hill’s Gymnastics, trained three-time Olympian Dominique Dawes as well as Olympians Elise Ray and Courtney Kupets.

Sydney Morris, a 15-year-old from Bowie who trains alongside 2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd at First State Gymnastics in Delaware, is 14th.