Mikulak cruises to 6th national title in men’s gymnastics

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Samuel Mikulak competes on the rings at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. Mikulak won the men’s all-around title. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Samuel Mikulak doesn’t show off the stash of medals he’s earned from the U.S. men’s gymnastics championships through the years. They sit in relatively anonymity in the basement of the place he shares with his girlfriend back in Colorado.

It’s not that Mikulak doesn’t appreciate what he’s accomplished. It’s just that two-time Olympian’s standard of success is no longer measured by what he does on home soil.

So while Mikulak pumped his fists in joy after clinching his modern era-record sixth national title on Saturday night by topping runner-up Yul Moldauer by a staggering 5.550 points, Mikulak remains equal parts perfectionist and realist.

Yes, he’s the most decorated American male gymnast of his generation. He’s also aware that his generation might not be as deep as the ones that came before.

“I guess it is just a weird place for the US right now,” Mikulak said. “You could probably make the argument that maybe this is the easiest time period for USA Gymnastics for a guy like me and so it doesn’t quite hold as much to it right now.”

After picking up his first individual world championship medal by grabbing bronze on high bar last October, the lack of any Olympic hardware is the lone hole left on his otherwise stuffed resume. And he knows it.

“I see the Russians and the Chinese and the Japanese and all the big skills they’re throwing and I’m just trying to live up to those expectations,” Mikulak said.

He remains adamant that he believes his best years are ahead of him. It certainly looks like a possibility after he captured gold in high bar, parallel bars, pommel horse and floor exercise and completed 12 routines over the course of two days without a fall. His overall total of 174.150 also created the largest winning margin of his six national championships.

No wonder he’s hinting at extending his career beyond Tokyo and hasn’t ruled out competing into his 30s. Maybe by then American men will have someone ready to pick up the mantle.

The program is in the midst of a generational shift. Mikulak is the lone member of the 2016 Olympic team who hasn’t retired, though alternates Akash Modi and Donnell Whittenburg are still in the mix. Mikulak lamented the lack of competition for the top spot after the opening round on Thursday, admitting he wishes there was someone nipping at his heels.

For the moment, there isn’t, though the men put on a considerably better show in the finals than they did on night one. Eight of the top 10 all-around finishers put up better all-around scores Saturday, providing a bit of momentum heading into next month’s world championship selection camp.

“You’re starting to see a lot more frequent personal bests throughout the team,” men’s high performance director Brett McClure said. “The improvement is starting to be tangible.”

Moldauer, who won the national title in 2017 while Mikulak was still recovering from an Achilles injury, overcame a messy high bar routine to hold on to second by drilling his floor exercise. Modi stuck his vault to finish on the podium. Whittenburg, who has been dogged by injuries for much of the last four years, finished third on still rings — his signature event — and seventh in the all-around despite being at what he described at “80%.”

“I feel like this is definitely the step that I needed to finally realize that I’m back,” Whittenburg said. “I still need to stay healthy but I feel like I can finally upgrade enough to get back where I was.”

Shane Wiskus made a spectacular save on high bar, blindly snatching it one-handed following a release that was a little too big. Rather than smashing onto the mat, he kept going to help propel him to a fourth-place finish.

Asked if he’s ever made a save look so good, Wiskus laughed and joked he needed to get his shoulder checked out.

Wiskus’ performance put him in the mix for world championship team, though the selection committee will have plenty to sort through., mostly due to injuries. Colin Van Wicklen sat out due to a concussion he sustained during warm-ups on Thursday. Alec Yoder withdrew due to a strained shoulder. Moldauer and Whittenburg are banged up.

The only question surrounding Mikulak is whether he can keep the momentum going. Healthy for an extended period for the first time in his elite career, Mikulak now appears to be gaining the mental toughness he’s lacked at times, when small, preventable mistakes would cost him valuable points on the big stage. Those missteps vanished during two sublime performances that found him at the height of his powers a year out from Tokyo.

It’s up to his potential teammates to keep pace if the Americans want to return to the podium, something they haven’t done at a world championships or Olympics since 2014.

“He puts out that standard for all of us like, ‘All of you guys need to get back out there,'” Whittenburg said. “And I get it because we don’t have the same team that we did in 2016. We’re going to all have to step it up to try to get to that level so we can all collectively as a group be competitive against the rest of the world.”

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