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

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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