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

Korea Olympic hockey coach takes high school job

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Sarah Murray, who coached the joint Korean Olympic women’s hockey team in PyeongChang, will coach the Owatonna High School girls team in her native Minnesota starting this fall.

Murray has not responded to a request for comment though the school on whether this means she is leaving the South Korean national team program.

Murray, 30, guided the joint Korean Olympic team to an 0-5 record. The tournament underdogs scored in three games and were within two goals of Switzerland.

Three weeks before the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee approved adding 12 North Koreans to the South Korean Olympic women’s hockey team, making it the first joint Korean team in any Olympic event.

Murray initially had mixed feelings.

“It’s exciting to be a part of something that’s so historic, to have two countries so divided come together through sports,” Murray said in January, according to Yonhap News Agency. “I think the story is great, and to be a part of it is important. But at the same time, it’s mixed feelings because it’s at the expense of, ‘We don’t get to play our full roster.’”

She expressed optimism after the Games.

“We have really enjoyed working with the North’s players and coaches, and we really do want to help them in the future,” Murray said, according to The Associated Press, adding that a possible “exchange game” was discussed to maintain the connection. “They want to get better, they want to keep learning from us and we want to help them. And there are things that we can learn from them, too.”

Murray won two NCAA titles as a player at Minnesota-Duluth. Her father, Andy Murray, spent 10 seasons coaching the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues in the 2000s.

She replaces an Otawonna coach who stepped down to focus on the girls lacrosse program and spend more time with his family.

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Michael Phelps launches mental health campaign

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Michael Phelps was hanging at the pool on Tuesday.

No, he’s not planning another comeback.

He’s got a bigger goal to tackle.

Mental health.

After revealing the depths of his depression — and even thoughts of suicide after his second drunken-driving arrest — Phelps is hoping to make a difference for those who are dealing with similar issues.

The 23-time Olympic gold medalist announced a partnership with Talkspace, which provides online therapy, and said he considers it a higher calling than anything he ever did as a swimmer.

“Somebody told me yesterday about his daughter going through a very, very deep depression and not really wanting to be alive,” Phelps said in an interview with The Associated Press. “She read stories about me opening up. He told me how much that helped her. For me, that’s way bigger than ever winning gold medals. The chance to potentially save a life, to give that person an opportunity to grow and learn and help someone else, there’s nothing better in life.”

Despite his unprecedented success as an athlete, Phelps went through plenty of dark moments.

His first DUI arrest came when he was just 19, a few months after he won six gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics. He was briefly suspended after a picture emerged of him smoking from a marijuana pipe after his record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. He struggled to get motivated heading into the 2012 Olympics.

But his low point came in 2014, after he abandoned retirement to compete in a fifth Olympics only to be arrested again for driving under the influence. He checked into an Arizona rehab clinic and finally realized just how much he was hurting — so much so, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go on living.

“I thought it would make things easier,” Phelps recalled. “I almost felt like it would be better for everybody if I wasn’t there. But the more I thought about it, I wanted to find a different route. I wanted to see if I could find some help. I wanted to see if I could get better.”

Phelps said he’s in a much better place these days. He’s happily married and living in suburban Phoenix with two small children, 2-year-old Boomer and 3-month-old Beckett. He’s satisfied with his career, saying there’s nothing left to accomplish at the pool.

But there are times that he struggles with depression and anxiety.

He figures it will be that way for the rest of his life.

“I still go through times that are very challenging. I do break down and maybe have a bad day, where I’m not in a good mental state,” Phelps said. “I understand that. It’s who I am. I guess that will always be something that’s a part of me.”

He hopes that his deal with Talkspace, which helps connect those in need with therapists through a variety on online conduits, will help to remove some of the stigma associated with mental health — especially for those who are reluctant to seek out help in person or may not have the financial means.

Phelps said mental health is especially important when suicide rates are on the rise and a rash of school shootings have rocked the United States.

“I feel like with all the issues we have in this world, this is something where I can truly make significant impact,” he said.

The 32-year-old Phelps has kept himself in good condition since Rio. He rides a bike nearly every day and still works out at the pool at least twice a week. When he stepped on the scales Monday, he weighed 192 pounds — 3 pounds less than he was at his last Olympics.

“Could I come back? Yes,” he said. “I think it would be even easier than it was in 2014 (when he officially ended his first attempt at retirement). I’m in better shape now than I was then.”

But, with those tantalizing words, Phelps quickly struck down any thought of returning to competitive swimming.

He simply doesn’t have any motivation to add to his record haul.

“Would I like to break a world record? Yeah, obviously,” Phelps said. “But I also know what I did to prepare for Rio. I thought I did a pretty damn good job of getting myself ready to go. I didn’t want any what-ifs 20 years down the road. Twenty years down the road, I won’t have that. I’ll be able to say I was happy with how I finished my career. I was happy to be able to have my family there, to have my first-born there to watch. I’ll have those memories forever.

“All good things must come to an end eventually. That was the best way to go out.”

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