HARTFORD, CONN. – The opening night of the USA Gymnastics Championships men’s all-around competition marked something of an anniversary for Sam Mikulak, an obvious reminder of what could have been the worst night of a young and promising career.
Mikulak, 20, a Corona del Mar High graduate and four-time NCAA champion at Michigan, was leading after the first day of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials all-around when, with a horrified crowd and national television audience watching, he injured his left ankle on the vault so severely that it appeared unlikely he would be able to compete the second day. His Olympic dream seemed over. Or at least delayed until 2016.
Mikulak, risking further injury, managed to compete well enough the next day on the pommel horse to convince the selection committee to send him to London. For many in the sport it was a two-day drama of alarm and ultimately courageous resiliency. Yet in the days and hours leading up to Friday night’s competition at the XL Center, Mikulak did not turn to the memory with dread or for inspiration.
Mikulak is not a rear-view mirror kind of guy.
“I didn’t think of it at all,” he said. “For me it’s one step forward, one day at a time.”
Some days the steps are larger than others.
Mikulak built a commanding lead Friday night with a display of high difficulty and often flawless technique that not only erased the memories of last summer’s near disaster but landed him squarely in contention for multiple medals at the World Championships this fall.
“I feel great,” Mikulak said. “This is exactly what I wanted to do, hit 6 for 6 (routines). I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Neither could an XL Center crowd that included dozens of Olympic and World champions including Nadia Comaneci. From his opening rotation on the vault, Mikulak finally stamped himself as the heir apparent to Olympic champions Peter Vidmar, Bart Conner and Paul Hamm with an electrifying and dominating performance the American sport had been waiting for through a career in which golden promise seemed to be inevitably followed by catastrophic injury.
“To be able to have such a high degree of difficulty and still have such a keen level of technique and not only do it well but to have fun doing it is just the perfect package,” Conner said. “He’s superb.”
Mikulak tied for the highest score on the high bar (15.6) and the second-highest mark on the pommel horse (15.2) and parallel bars (15.35) to roll up a 91.65 total first day score and take a nearly insurmountable lead ahead of Olympic teammate Jake Dalton (88.7) into Sunday’s final round. Danell Leyva, the 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist, is a distant sixth at 86.9.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an insurmountable lead,” Conner said. “It’s still gymnastics. A lot can happen. But Sam doesn’t have any weaknesses. All the other guys have at least one place they do better on. All the way across the board Sam is solid.”
The problem area Friday was the pommel horse. “The pommel horse is just taking names tonight,” said Shannon Miller, a two-time World all-around champion. Some very big names.
Leyva fell off the horse during the second rotation, his title hopes slipping with him and a 13.35 score. Dalton, competing three after Leyva, stumbled to a 13.35 mark that left him in a large early hole.
While his chief rivals struggled, Mikulak started strong and seemed to gain confidence and energy as he hit one routine after another. “Every time I looked around he was landing it,” Dalton said. “He was killing it.”
“I definitely turned the ‘On’ switch on tonight,” Mikulak said.
In a moment of drama and coincidence that only Mikulak seemed not to grasp, his night began on the vault. He charged down the runway, launched, then landed spotlessly, any scars, physical or otherwise, from a year ago, no longer visible.
“I don’t even tape the ankle any more,” he said.