Sam Mikulak takes big step to 6th U.S. Gymnastics title

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sam Mikulak is well on his way to a sixth U.S. men’s gymnastics title. He’s just not quite so sure that’s a good thing.

Though the two-time Olympian was relatively pleased with his performance Thursday night, when his all-around score of 86.750 gave him a 2.750-point lead over 2017 national champion Yul Moldauer, Mikulak would prefer to have a little more heat on him heading into Saturday’s finals.

Mikulak intentionally watered down his routines to avoid the type of big opening-night mistakes that have plagued him in the past. It worked. Save for a step out of bounds on his vault, he was dominant. His score of 15.350 on parallel bars was the best of the night on any apparatus. It means he won’t have to put together a big rally if he wants to tie Makoto Sakamoto for the second-most national championships in history.

It also means, however, that nobody else in the field came close to matching him on a night when the 26-year-old kept it mostly in neutral. Not exactly the best development with the selection camp for the 2019 world championship team a month away.

“I do kind of wish there was a lot more nipping at my heels in a way,” Mikulak said. “Especially doing downgraded (routines) today. It is a bit of a struggle. I know all these guys and I kind of know what’s going on behind the scenes as well. It’s a lot of injuries.”

Colin Van Wicklen withdrew after sustaining a concussion during warm-ups. Matt Wenske placed eighth but was forced to withdraw after hurting his ankle on vault. Moldauer’s health issues over the last year have included a back injury and elbow problems. Donnell Whittenburg, an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team who is attempting to get his career back on track, has a myriad of concerns, from his shoulder to his knees.

Whittenburg put together perhaps his best competition in well over a year until a shaky high bar set in which he nearly came flying off. Though he managed to save it, his score of 11.850 dropped him to seventh overall. Wearing an eye-catching white Jordan brand headband, Whittenburg still believes he took a step forward.

Asked if he began making a compelling case to receive an invitation to the world team selection camp in September, Whittenburg nodded even while allowing much work remains to be done.

“I definitely have,” Whittenburg said. “I know if I do my very best, there’s nothing they can say at this point. But for me, I didn’t. So if I didn’t do as best as I can, I feel like that always gives (the committee) questions about like ‘What if? What if? What if?’ For me, I feel like for Saturday, I need to try to hit all my routines the best as I can.”

He’s hardly the only one. Moldauer technically hit all six of his routines, but four of them contained wobbles or form breaks that cost him.

“I can’t blame it on anyone else but myself,” Moldauer said. “It’s knowing what you need to improve. Look at the score and look at it in a positive way even though it’s lower than usual. There’s always something you can do to make it better.”

The same goes for the rest of the group behind Mikulak that is hoping to make what likely will be a very young five-man world championship team.

Will Graves is an Associated Press writer.

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Sam-Mikulak-takes-big-step-to-6th-U-S-Gymnastics-14292161.php.

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