KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sam Mikulak showed the judges consistency on the first night of the U.S. gymnastics championships.
In Saturday’s finale, he dazzled with more skill and flair to comfortably claim a sixth U.S. men’s championship, breaking a modern-era mark he had shared with Blaine Wilson. He’s now tied with Makoto Sakamoto, who earned his sixth U.S. all-around title in 1970.
A two-time Olympian, Mikulak completed Thursday’s opening round with a 2.750-point lead, which suggested he didn’t so much need to push himself Saturday as deliver a clean redo of his previous performances on the six mandatory events.
Nonetheless, he added more difficult elements to his high bar, parallel bars and rings routines, with an eye toward convincing the judges — and himself — that he has the stuff to contend for medals on the international stage in 2020.
“To come out here a year before, at national championships, and already compete ’em and hit ’em, it just gives me a lot of confidence going into this next year to keep doing what I’m doing,” Mikulak said.
The 26-year-old won the all-around title with a score of 174.150. He won gold on floor exercise, pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar.
Mikulak completed his 12 events over the two nights of competition without a significant hitch to post a 5.500-point margin of victory over Oklahoma’s Yul Moldauer (168.600), the 2017 U.S. champion. Akash Modi (168.250) of Stanford took bronze.
Winning by such a hefty margin, Mikulak conceded, was encouraging, but he also welcomes being pushed.
“I guess, in my own mind, I try to keep the bar to where Sam wants the bar to be,” Mikulak said, noting that several quality gymnasts weren’t in the field at the U.S. championships this year, because of injury or having competed at the Pan American Games.
Moldauer, a 22-year-old and the only gymnast other than Mikulak to win the U.S. all-around title since 2013, said all gymnasts benefit from the standard Mikulak sets.
“Knowing that Sam is on that level, it just shows us that we need to get to his level if we want to be competitive as a team,” he said. “It helps us to watch Sam. . . . We get to aim toward getting to that level.”
By the time Mikulak stepped up to his final event, the rings, he boasted a 5.700-point lead, which virtually assured his sixth title. Nonetheless, when he stuck his landing, there was no question. Mikulak thumped his chest repeatedly and whipped his right fist in circles to pump up the crowd of 6,289 at Sprint Center.
The venue will host the finale of the U.S. women’s gymnastics championship Sunday night, with reigning Olympic and U.S. all-around champion Simone Biles looking fully in command as she seeks a sixth U.S. title of her own.
Baltimore native Donnell Whittenburg, an alternate on the U.S. men’s team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, closed the final night of men’s competition with a strong performance on rings that earned him a bronze medal in the event. Whittenburg finished seventh in the all-around. Those results represented a positive step following injuries and shoulder surgery in November 2017.
“It means a lot right now, just getting back,” said Whittenburg, 24. “It helps my confidence and shows to myself, ‘This isn’t over yet.’ I feel like I’m on the right track now.”
No one secured a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team based on the results at this event. The four-person team won’t be named until June.
But they did lead to the announcement of the first six members of the 2019 men’s national team, with more gymnasts expected to be added. Those named Saturday were the event’s top six finishers: Mikulak, Moldauer, Modi, Shane Wiskus of Minnesota, Trevor Howard of Ohio State and Allan Bower of Oklahoma.
It’s from this pool, which will grow, that USA Gymnastics officials will select the five-man squad to compete in the 2019 world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany.
The U.S. men finished fourth at the 2018 world championships in Qatar, just missing the chance to clinch one of the first of 12 team spots in the 2020 Olympics. Their next chance comes in Stuttgart, where a finish among the top nine would secure a spot.
Medalists were awarded for each apparatus as follows:
Floor: Mikulak (gold); Moldauer (silver); Gage Dyer (bronze).
Pommel horse: Mikulak; Stephen Nedoroscik; Bower.
Rings: Alex Diab; Howard; Whittenburg.
Vault: Wiskus; Kiwan Watts and Timothy Wang (tied for silver).
Parallel bars: Mikulak; Moldauer; Wiskus.
High bar: Mikulak; Modi; Paul Juda.