Sam Mikulak’s road to Rio a different path than London; P&G Championships men’s preview

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INDIANAPOLIS — USA Gymnastics had enough room on the side of a building across from the Bankers Life Fieldhouse to feature four athletes on a promotional ad for this week’s P&G Championships.

They chose three women — London Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman and two-time World all-around champion Simone Biles — and one man.

That’s spikey-haired Sam Mikulak waving beneath the words “Countdown to Rio!”

“Everyone’s talking about the road to Rio,” Mikulak said in a USA Gymnastics interview Wednesday. “No one was talking to me about the road to London. … It’s just nice to have a little more confidence from the fans and everyone else … and be a prospect for these next Olympics.”

Four years ago, Mikulak had reason to believe he wasn’t considered an Olympic hopeful.

The previous two U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics teams had included nobody below the legal drinking age, and Mikulak was coming off his freshman season at the University of Michigan.

Plus, he couldn’t compete at the 2011 U.S. Championships after breaking both of his ankles.

“It wasn’t until probably May [2012], or whenever the following [U.S. Championships] of the Olympic year was that I finally burst onto the scene,” said Mikulak, who finished third in the U.S. all-around in 2012 and earned a spot on the Olympic team as the only man with no World Championships experience.

This week, Mikulak is the marquee man. He’s the two-time reigning U.S. all-around champion with a shot to become the first man in 11 years to three-peat after 12 routines over two days concluding Sunday (broadcast schedule here).

The last man to capture three in a row was Paul Hamm from 2002-04.

“That’s one of the greatest people you can be compared to,” Mikulak said.

But he can’t compete with Hamm’s international accolades — 2003 World and 2004 Olympic all-around gold medals.

Mikulak made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team at age 19 and the last two World Championships teams, but he has zero individual medals from those meets. Teammates Danell LeyvaJohn Orozco and Jacob Dalton all did earn individual medals.

“I would definitely say a solid World performance is exactly what I want,” Mikulak said of his overall goal for 2015.

He was fourth in the 2013 Worlds high bar final, fifth in the 2012 Olympic vault final and sixth in the 2013 Worlds all-around final.

His domestic competition this week doesn’t figure to be as fierce. Neither Orozco nor Dalton, who finished second and third at the 2014 P&G Championships, are competing in the all-around in Indianapolis.

Orozco is out until 2016 after re-tearing his right Achilles in June. Dalton will compete on at most two of six events (floor exercise and vault), if any at all due to a shoulder injury.

Mikulak is almost a shoo-in to be one of the six men named shortly after Sunday’s competition to the team for the World Championships (the last week of October in Glasgow, Scotland). Dalton could still be named to his fourth straight Worlds team, even if he doesn’t compete at the P&G Championships.

“It definitely doesn’t help my case to not compete,” Dalton, who may wait until Friday morning to decide if he competes, said Wednesday, “but with the limited training that I’ve had, it wouldn’t really help for me to go out and fall and get hurt.”

The favorites to challenge Mikulak’s three-peat bid are 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva and Donnell Whittenburg, who was the second U.S. all-arounder at the 2014 Worlds (Mikulak finished 12th; Whittenburg 17th).

“It would definitely be a highlight of my career if I came home with a national title, but mostly I’m not thinking about that,” Whittenburg said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “I don’t want to think ahead too far, because then it just starts making me nervous.”

There are others with Worlds experience, from Alex Naddour (valuable for finishing first or second on the U.S.’ weakest event, pommel horse, at the last four U.S. Championships) to Steven Legendre (2013 Worlds vault silver medalist) to Brandon Wynn (2013 Worlds rings bronze medalist) to Chris Brooks (2010 Worlds team member).

But perhaps the most intriguing hopefuls are two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton, 29, and 2014 Youth Olympic all-around bronze medalist Alec Yoder, who is 18 years old.

Horton, who recently splashed out on “American Ninja Warrior,” finished eighth in the all-around at the 2014 P&G Championships in his first competition since the 2012 Olympics, missing that Worlds team. Horton said this week he feels as good as he has in six years.

He’s taken difficulty out of his routines, lessening his start values, but feels he can score higher overall with better execution.

Changes came after what he called the second-worst meet of his life at the Winter Cup on Feb. 21, where Horton placed 18th in the all-around, a whopping 10.25 points behind winner Paul Ruggeri III (a contender to make his first Worlds team after being an alternate on three of the last four).

“I had to set my pride aside,” Horton said, stepping back after Winter Cup to reassess his routines. “I’ve always been the guy who had really high start values. I’m not as fast or as strong or as powerful [as before].”

Yoder, about to embark an a collegiate career at Ohio State, could become the youngest U.S. man to make a Worlds team since Leyva in 2009.

Yoder, at 5 feet, 8 inches, is taller than Mikulak, Leyva, Dalton and Horton. He finished eighth in the Winter Cup all-around, and that was without Mikulak or Dalton competing on every event. So he has work to do.

“He’s one of the guys that knows how to stick his landings and capitalize on an exclamation point,” Mikulak said in February. “He’s a taller gymnast, so it really helps him accentuate his lines on pommel horse. I think that’s an event that the U.S. is pretty weak on. That’s where he’s going to find his biggest strength on the U.S. team.”

Yoder is not too confident of making the Worlds team, though.

“I don’t know if that’s something that’s attainable,” he said Wednesday.

Mikulak, who began his college career at Michigan in 2010-11, sees parellels with Yoder, who is one Olympic cycle behind the two-time reigning U.S. champion.

“He’s got some start value that he needs to get up,” Mikulak said. “That’s kind of where I was at when I was his age. The year before the Olympics, I just pushed my start values quite significantly, and it was enough to make the Olympic team.”

Gabby Douglas looks to continue to disprove doubters 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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