Sam Mikulak flips closer to sixth U.S. title

The two-time Olympian is six gymnastic routines away from the record books after a strong first day of nationals in Kansas City

Two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak is now just six routines away from his sixth U.S. gymnastics title, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by an American man since Makoto Sakamoto in 1970. Only Alfred Jochim has seven U.S. national crowns.

“It’s not really my biggest aspiration I’ve set for goals this year,” Mikulak told Olympic Channel in Kansas City. “But obviously, it would be a great stepping stone going into the World Championships.”

“It’d just be nice to have my name up in the record books for that,” he added.

He leads 2017 U.S. champion Yul Moldauer with scores 86.750 to 84.000. Shane Wiskus and Akash Modi are tied for third at 83.950 after Thursday (8th August).

Another record for Mikulak

Mikulak’s name is, of course, already in the record books as only one of eight to ever win five or more U.S. titles. Before Mikulak nabbed his fifth title last season, the most recent U.S. man to win five titles was Blaine Wilson who won five straight from 1996-2000.

“Going for a sixth, I just feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin,” the 26-year-old said. “I don’t have anything I’m second guessing, no training plan that I think I should have been doing.”

A generational talent, Mikulak has at times struggled to deliver under pressure. But tonight – along with an impressive performance in April at the Tokyo World Cup – have shown a newfound consistency.

“I’ve found a rhythm,” he said. “I’ve really been able to perfect everything about my training leading up to these big competitions.”

“I’m a believer in Sam Mikulak right now,” Jonathan Horton told the Olympic Channel on Thursday.

Horton competed at the London 2012 Olympics with Mikulak. “I think he’s going to have some of the greatest gymnastics of his life, leading up to the Olympics.”

Worlds focused

Mikulak opened with three strong events on the floor exercise, pommel horse and still rings, where he recorded scores of 14.650, 14.750 and 14.300, respectively.

A slight misstep on the vault resulted in a 13.500.

“Vault, the one thing I’ve been doing for like 16 years, I just got a little complacent on. It was just one of those things where I was just like, ‘Come on, kid,'" Mikulak admitted.

But then, he came alive in the fifth rotation, sailing through a parallel bars routine with total control. His 15.350, the highest score of the day on any event, extended his lead to 2.650 points with one routine to go.

He didn’t let up in the final rotation, going big on the high bar with two massive, double-flipping catch and release moves. He earned a 14.200 on the event after taking a large step back on his double-twisting, double layout dismount.

With a nearly three-point margin, Mikulak said Saturday’s finals would be more of a testing ground for new elements he hopes to use later this year at the World Championships in Stuttgart and at next year’s Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“I think I’ve got enough of a lead right now to feel comfortable to put my upgrades come in, come in Saturday and try to make that more of a Worlds preparation meet,” he said.

A nod to the future

International Gymnastics Federation president and International Olympic Committee member Morinari Watanabe opened the meet, acknowledging the turmoil that still consumes USA Gymnastics in the fall out of abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar.

"U.S. gymnastics must be strong because American gymnasts are huge all over the world,” Watanabe said. “They are heroes not just within gymnastics, but also for the entire sports community. They are heroes that mark Olympic history."

The remarks come a day after four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles' emotional criticism of the federation following a practice session in Kansas City.

“It’s hard coming here for an organisation, having had them fail us so many times, we had one goal, we have done everything that they asked us for, even when we didn’t want to and they couldn’t do one damn job,'' Biles said.

Earlier this morning in a press briefing, USA Gymnastics president Li Li Leung responded to Biles’ words.

“Historically, our organization has silenced our gymnasts and I am 100 percent supportive of giving our athletes a voice. I think our athletes should be able to say what they feel and be comfortable doing so,” said Leung. “I understand that we have let down many athletes, we have let down Simone, and she needs time to heal from that. If voicing her concerns and her feelings is one way to do that, I am completely supportive of that.”

Biles begins her quest for a sixth U.S. title of her own Friday evening.

All Around

The main rivals for Biles' title include Riley McCusker and Morgan Hurd, who recently represented Team USA at the Pan American Games in Lima.

Along with Russia’s Angelina Melnikova and China’s Chen Yile, Hurd stars in the Olympic Channel’s original series ‘All Around.

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