Sam Mikulak entered the sixth and last rotation of the 2013 World Championships all-around final in third place, looking to win the first U.S. men’s all-around medal since 2010.
Mikulak, at his first Worlds, would finish his night on high bar, arguably his strongest event. If every gymnast repeated his qualifying score from his last event in the all-around final, Mikulak would win the silver medal.
No U.S. man had won an Olympic or World all-around silver or gold medal since Paul Hamm‘s Olympic title at Athens 2004.
Mikulak likely wasn’t thinking of such feats — he said he felt no nerves — but he erred on high bar and plummeted to sixth place. Mikulak had made the 2012 Olympic team as a rising University of Michigan junior and won his first P&G Championships all-around title the following year.
He was second to Japan’s Kohei Uchimura in 2013 Worlds all-around qualifying and was set to be the closest man to Uchimura again before that last rotation in the final in Antwerp, Belgium. Uchimura won his record fourth straight World all-around title, earning more of an argument for greatest-ever status.
Even if he hit high bar, Mikulak would have finished more than one full point behind Uchimura, continuing the great divide in men’s gymnastics. Mikulak was asked that night what he lacked to be competitive with Uchimura.
“Start value,” he told reporters in Antwerp. “I think that’s all I’m missing.”
Mikulak gets his second chance to win an all-around medal and challenge Uchimura at the World Championships in Nanning, China, over the next week. The U.S. men go through qualifying Saturday. The all-around final is Thursday (full broadcast schedule here).
Start value, or difficulty score, is one of two parts that make up a gymnast’s total score on each apparatus. The other is the execution score, based out of 10 per event.
In Antwerp, Uchimura had a combined start value total of 38.2 points over all six events. Mikulak’s start value was 36.4 (36.9 in qualifying). Mikulak went into the sixth and last rotation 1.675 points behind Uchimura and finished 3.442 behind after that high bar mistake.
Mikulak averaged a combined start value of 37.35 at the 2013 P&G Championships, before 2013 Worlds. At this year’s P&G Championships, Mikulak had a combined start value of 38 on the second day, when he came from fourth place back to win.
On top of that, Mikulak promised additional difficulty for Worlds after the P&G Championships in Pittsburgh last month. He showed that in training in Nanning this week, performing a vault with four tenths more difficulty than he did at P&Gs or in 2013.
In other words, Mikulak appears to be closing the gap in difficulty, the caveat being it’s not known exactly what Uchimura plans to unleash in Nanning.
“[Mikulak] probably could have finished in the all-around second in the world [in 2013],” Mikulak’s coach, Kurt Golder, said at the P&G Championships. “That’s right about where he stands right now.
“This guy from Japan, Uchimura, he’s fantastic. That’s the target. That’s the one we’re chasing.”
Mikulak is seen as one of the biggest threats to Uchimura’s dominance. The Japanese won silver at the 2008 Olympics and has won every annual global title since. He is the only gymnast, male or female, to win four World all-around titles.
The other top all-around gymnasts in Nanning include Japan’s Ryohei Kato, Great Britain’s Max Whitlock and Germany’s Fabian Hambuechen. Mikulak trained with the three-time Olympian Hambuechen earlier this year.
“I’m chipping away at it, making sure my start values are getting higher and higher as the years go on,” Mikulak, who is four years younger than Uchimura, said at the P&G Championships. “Hopefully, when it comes Rio time, I’ll be up there with his start values.”