Sam Mikulak

Sam Mikulak rallies for repeat P&G Championships title (video)

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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 leads World Championships team; analysis

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.”

Simone Biles awes judges, U.S. legend to repeat at P&G Championships

Iran banned from judo for instructing athlete to withdraw rather than face Israel opponent

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Iran has been banned from international judo for instructing one of its athletes to withdraw from August’s world championships rather than face an Israeli judoka.

The International Judo Federation said Iran authorities instructing Saeid Mollaei to withdraw rather than face Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was “a serious breach and gross violation” of its code of ethics and the Olympic Charter.

IJF spokesman Vlad Marinescu said any ban won’t apply to the Tokyo Olympics. That’s because it’s the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the Iranian Judo Federation, which formally enters the Olympic team.

“We have been informed by IJF that they will launch a proper procedure giving all concerned parties the right to be heard,” an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said. “Should the issue become an Olympic issue we will take the result of this procedure into consideration.”

An IJF disciplinary commission said it “has a strong reason to believe that the Iran Judo Federation will continue or repeatedly engage in misconduct” given its history of similar actions with its athletes potentially facing Israelis.

Mollaei, a 2018 World champion, said he was afraid to return to Iran after disobeying those orders at worlds. He competed anyway but lost one round before a potential final with Muki.

“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid.”

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year’s Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognize. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used “questionable injuries” to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei’s case came four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to “fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

Back in August, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to “create problems” with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying “everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel).”

“They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon,” Zareian said. “After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations.”

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Israel, judo federation hail letter from Iran; Tehran silent

Jacarra Winchester, after foe bites her, wins first wrestling world title

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Jacarra Winchester missed the Rio Olympic wrestling trials after tearing her knee playing soccer. She missed a medal at the 2018 World Championships after a semifinal-winning takedown was reversed.

There was no denying her on Wednesday.

Winchester, who picked up wrestling a decade ago as a high school junior, became the first American to earn a medal at the worlds in Kazakhstan this week. And it was gold.

She came back to beat Japanese Nanami Irie 5-3 in the final of the 55kg division, a weight class that is not on the Olympic program. Winchester must move to 53kg or 57kg next year.

But for now she can celebrate quite a journey. At 26, she’s one of the older wrestlers to become a first-time world champion. She believed she had what it took last year, when a reversed call kept her from the final and she subsequently lost a bronze-medal match.

Winchester, who has problems sleeping, said she replayed the end of that semifinal in her head ever since.

“There’s no reason why I should have gotten beat,” she said Wednesday. “Clearly I have what I need on the mat. I just need to change my mindset. … Just knowing you’re the best, pushing yourself and not letting anything get to me.”

That helped in Tuesday’s semifinals, where Winchester said her Turkish opponent bit her, pulled her hair and twisted her fingers. Winchester, who grew up in the Oakland, Calif., area, said that when she started wrestling she had no Olympic goals.

“I had a mindset of I’m not a quitter,” she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Adeline Gray reached Thursday’s 76kg final, where she will try to become the first American to earn five world titles.

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