Sam Mikulak

Sam Mikulak leads one of most decorated P&G Championships fields ever

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PITTSBURGH — The men’s field at the P&G Championships is so accomplished and deep that there are seven gymnasts who own Olympic or World Championships medals.

And the favorite to take home the most coveted title Sunday, the U.S. all-around crown, is not part of that septet.

That’s Sam Mikulak, who won last year’s title by a whopping 2.9 points, the largest margin of victory in 14 years.

Mikulak has plenty of international experience, making the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team at 19 and finishing sixth in the all-around at his first World Championships last fall.

The spiky haired NCAA champion from the University of Michigan knows much is expected of him this year, beginning with the first night of competition Friday at 7 ET (NBCSN will have coverage at 11:30 p.m.).

“It’s always different being someone who’s defending versus someone who’s fighting for that first-place spot,” Mikulak said. “It’s different, but nothing’s really changing when it comes to my mentality.”

Mikulak’s task, to repeat, is complicated by the healthy presence of the three previous U.S. all-around champions. The field includes at least four past champions for the first time since 2008.

The 2012 U.S. champion, John Orozco, finished fourth in the all-around last year while wearing a knee brace after tearing an ACL and meniscus in October 2012. Orozco also tore an Achilles in 2010.

But there are no major injury worries this year. Just a funny left pinkie that he can’t feel when gripping parallel bars. Orozco won World Championships bronze on bars last fall.

Orozco diverted his answer when asked if he sees Mikulak as a favorite.

“I don’t really think about coming into beat anybody because that has been my downfall in the past, whenever I look around and I think I have to beat this person, or I have to do better than this score or that score. ” said Orozco, an Olympian and Bronx, N.Y., native. “I’m thinking inward.”

A gymnast well known for self reflection is 2011 U.S. champion Danell Leyva, often seen hidden under a towel between routines. He’s barely been visible since winning Olympic all-around bronze in 2012.

He finished seventh in the all-around at the 2013 P&G Championships, yet still made the World Championships team. However, he withdrew from the Worlds team due to a shoulder injury one day after being named.

In February, he placed ninth in the Winter Cup all-around.

“It’s been not what was planned, at all,” since the Olympics, said Leyva, the only U.S. man to bag a medal at an otherwise forgettable London Games.

The problem? Pressure. Leyva hopes he’s figured out the solution, not weighing himself down with expectations.

One man who said he has really low expectations in Pittsburgh is 2009 and 2010 U.S. champion Jonathan Horton. Horton, a two-time 2008 Olympic medalist, will raise his hand and perform routines in front of judges Friday for the first time since the 2012 Olympic high bar final.

“So I’m pretty nervous,” said Horton, 28 and a married father. “I’m the old man here.”

Horton, also plagued by injury since the Olympics, said he’s still three or four months away from being as strong as he used to be.

The entire 2012 U.S. Olympic team is in the field, including Jake Dalton.

So is the entire 2013 World Championships team, which had four different individual medalists in Antwerp, Belgium, last fall, matching Japan (though Japan had more overall medals, and the U.S. won no golds).

There is little room for breakthrough, but Donnell Whittenburg is powerful enough to beat the veterans and make his first World Championships team with a strong weekend.

Whittenburg, 20 and built like he should be competing across the Allegheny at Heinz Field, placed second in the all-around at the Winter Cup and won a national qualifier in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 20. He beat Orozco and Leyva at the latter competition.

Simone Biles larger than life as defending champion

U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Laurie Hernandez discusses life after Rio, new book on TODAY (video)

Laurie Hernandez
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Laurie Hernandez‘s book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is out Tuesday, and the Olympic champion gymnast stopped by TODAY on Monday to discuss its contents and life post-Rio.

An excerpt on Hernandez’s experience in Rio and the story of her floor-exercise wink to judges, is here.

On TODAY, Hernandez discussed another interesting anecdote from the book about tissues.

“Before Olympic Trials, we went out to eat, and I had a little breakdown because practice was really rough, and my routines weren’t coming the way I wanted them to,” she said. “This poor waitress kept bringing me over piles of tissues. … We were leaving, and my sister [Jelysa] told my dad, I’m going to save these tissues. I’m going to give them to her when she makes the team. I’m thinking to myself, you guys are crazy, this is not going to happen.”

Hernandez went on to finish second to Simone Biles at the Olympic Trials and make the five-woman Olympic team as the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s.

The family celebrated the achievement, where Jelysa handed the tissues to Hernandez in a bag.

“Even when you fell, you couldn’t believe in yourself, we were there for you,” Jelysa told her.

“So it was a really defining moment,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is away from gymnastics while promoting her book and touring with “Dancing with the Stars,” but she is expected to return to the sport at some point.

MORE: Hernandez explains 2017 goals: First date, driver’s license, Law & Order