Boston — Sam Mikulak’s feet hit the mat and a guttural scream soon followed. Winning national championships never gets old for the best American gymnast of his generation. Yet the title the 25-year-old captured Saturday felt different.
Eighteen months ago an Achilles injury threatened to derail the former Michigan Wolverine's career. Back issues that popped up last week left him wary. A shaky performance during the opening round on Thursday fueled his angst, or at least close as the relentlessly optimistic Mikulak gets to angst.
Mikulak knows all too well the potential he’s shown during a half-decade in the spotlight hasn’t exactly turned into the results he wants on the world stage. Listen hard enough and you can hear the clock ticking on his time as the standard bearer for the U.S. men’s program.
So he arrived at the new Boston Garden for finals ready to send a message. Not just to the guys who will be his teammates when the Americans head to Qatar for the 2018 world championships in two months, but to himself.
“I really wanted this day to be a proving myself type of day,” Mikulak said.
Pumped at the start and emphatic at the finish, Mikulak’s total of 87.750 was more than two points higher than the 85.150 he managed on Thursday, and the combined total of 172.900 was nearly five points clear of defending national champion Yul Moldauer.
Perfect? No. Better? Absolutely. The two-time Olympian finished with the top scores on floor exercise, high bar and parallel bars to become the first American to win five national titles since Blaine Wilson ripped off five straight crowns from 1996-2000.
“It’s a wonderful stepping stone,” said Mikulak, who was a seven-time NCAA champion at Michigan. “It definitely feels good. I think this is the favorite one that I’ve won so far just because I feel like I’m at a different place in my confidence, in my gymnastics and being able to ride this going into world championships will definitely set me off feeling a little more confident. And I’m just excited for what we got as a team.”
Having the charismatic Moldauer showcasing the form that could make him a legitimate challenger to Mikulak sooner rather than later helped.
The 21-year-old is dealing with a disc problem in his lower back and looked out of sorts on Thursday when he finished in a tie for ninth. Altering his routines slightly to take some of the pressure off his back, Moldauer scored 85.450 on Saturday to sprint all the way to second. Allan Bower finished third, followed by Donothan Bailey, Alec Yoder and Akash Modi.
Moldauer was behind all of them coming into the finals before hitting all six of his routines in a remarkably resilient display.
“You’re going to have a rough day but you can’t hold onto that,” Moldauer said. “You have to come forward from it. However you react is how you’re going to perform in the future. Just knowing that I could reset and come out and perform how I wanted to perform really helped me and helped my confidence and helped know that I could do it.”
If healthy, Moldauer and Mikulak are virtual locks to make the five-man world championship team when it is announced next month. After that, however, men’s program high-performance director Brett McClure will have his work cut out trying to piece together a squad capable of taking on the international elite.
“We’re not in first, obviously,” Moldauer said. “But I think we can be on the podium. If we can get our strategy right, if we can get our routines to be as clean as possible, we can be up there.”
The men’s program is in the midst of a generational shift. Mikulak is the only member of the 2016 Olympic team that finished a disappointing fifth in Rio de Janeiro still competing. Yet the next wave is still finding its footing.
The Americans won just a single medal at world championships last year and Modi acknowledged the uneven display the group as a whole put on during the first day of competition is nowhere close to what will be required if the U.S. wants to nudge itself back toward the world’s elite.
Whoever makes the team, McClure’s biggest challenge will be making sure the men are sharp from the get-go.
“We missed an opportunity to perform under a pressure situation (on Thursday), in an arena, on a podium,” McClure said. “I feel the energy tonight was much more focused. The realization kind of set in, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, we’re getting ready for a world championships, we’re getting ready to qualify to the Olympics so let’s get it done.
There were promising signs on Saturday, with Mikulak leading the way. He placed part of the blame for Thursday’s bumpy display on a lack of energy both on the podium and in the stands. He seemed intent on changing it from the second he saluted the judges before his floor exercise.
The momentum built over the next two and a half hours, leading to the celebratory fist pump to his contingent of friends and family sitting in the first row after drilling his high-bar dismount.
“We wanted to be high energy the whole time,” Mikulak said. “So we were like ‘Even if you don’t feel it, fake it till you make it’ and I think we made it.”