PITTSBURGH — Sam Mikulak lost his grip and his bag, but never his confidence, and rallied to win his second straight all-around title at the P&G Championships on Sunday.
The spiky-haired gymnast, usually California cool, paced around the Consol Energy Center, from the competition floor to drug testing, late Friday night.
Hours earlier, he fumbled on parallel bars without a proper mixture of honey and chalk to start the P&G Championships. Mikulak, the defending champion, was in 24th place in the all-around after the first of 12 rotations.
He rallied over the next five, leaping to fourth place at the end of the first night of competition. But he was still 2.35 points behind the leader and needing to pass three of his 2012 Olympic teammates for the all-around title Sunday.
He encountered another worry later Friday night, though.
“I lost my [gym] bag,” Mikulak said. “I went back to stretch, and I was like, oh gosh someone took my bag.”
The bag contained his grips and other necessities to rally up the leaderboard in 36 hours. After fruitless calls, he finally found it.
Which was a bigger concern, climbing back from that deficit or tracking down the lost gym bag?
“Definitely finding my bag,” Mikulak said Sunday afternoon, with the benefit of hindsight.
Mikulak never lost faith that he would retain his title. His coach at the University of Michigan, Kurt Golder, reassured him after the frustrating Friday.
“Just make sure [Sunday] you do it one [routine] at a time,” Golder said. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself that you’ve got defend your title or anything.”
“Yeah, I know,” was Mikulak’s what-me-worry response.
So Mikulak went out Sunday and chopped away at 2012 U.S. champion John Orozco’s lead. He was 1.9 behind after parallel bars, scoring 1.9 points higher than Friday. He cut another seven tenths off on high bar with a 15.8 and another .75 on floor exercise (15.65).
With three events to go, he just needed to pick up two tenths per apparatus.
“I don’t know if he was, but between the coaches, we were looking at [the scoreboard],” Golder said. “He’s chipped away half of it after two events. Then it kept chipping away, getting closer and closer. At the end he had to nail his vault.”
He did, landing a Kasamatsu (with a hop) that he’s been performing since he was in high school.
In all, Mikulak scored 92.25 points Sunday after 88.4 on Friday.
“I had one of the greatest days of my life,” said Mikulak, who might also count the day earlier this year when he went bungee jumping from 400 feet high in Europe while training with German veteran Fabian Hambuechen.
Mikulak’s combined score, 180.65, beat Orozco (180.2). Orozco performed a vault Sunday with 1.2 less in difficulty than he did Friday and scored 1.05 fewer points. That’s what did him in.
Another Olympian, Jacob Dalton, finished third (179.85) after leading by 1.05 going into the final rotation. Dalton went on the dreaded pommel horse last and scored a not-surprising 13.1.
Mikulak became the first man to win back-to-back U.S. all-around titles since Jonathan Horton in 2009 and 2010.
Golder said he’s never seen Mikulak come through under tougher circumstances, even during a decorated college career with three NCAA all-around titles.
“This was his toughest climb,” Golder said.
Mikulak’s path to this year’s championship was nothing like 2013, when his biggest failure came on the 12th and final event, pommel horse.
“The last thing someone said to him [before pommel horse] was, you could fall two times and still win,” Golder said. “Then he went out there and fell two times. I know it was the nerves that time.”
Mikulak still won by 2.9 points, but then he went to Worlds and struggled again on his final event, high bar, to finish sixth in the all-around.
This year, Golder and Mikulak said they’ve upgraded their start values and have even more difficulty to be added on pommel horse and parallel bars before Worlds in China in six weeks.
Both coach and gymnast mentioned they’re working toward catching Japanese great Kohei Uchimura, the four-time reigning World champion and the Olympic champion.
“[Mikulak] probably could have finished in the all-around second in the world [last year without struggling on high bar],” Golder said. “That’s about where he stands right now. This guy from Japan, Uchimura, you know he’s fantastic. That’s the target. That’s the one we’re chasing.”