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

Gaon Choi breaks Chloe Kim record, youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe champion

Gaon Choi
Jamie Schwaberow/X Games
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South Korean Gaon Choi broke Chloe Kim‘s record as the youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe champion, winning at age 14 on Saturday in Aspen, Colorado.

Choi, the world junior champion, landed three different 900s in her third of four runs to overtake two-time U.S. Olympian Maddie Mastro. She then landed a frontside 1080 in her fourth run.

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

Choi became the first Winter X Games medalist for South Korea, a nation with a best Olympic halfpipe finish of 14th. She is six months younger than Kim was when Kim won the first of her five X Games Aspen halfpipe titles in 2015.

“I began snowboarding because of Chloe Kim and now almost being near her level when she was 14, it feels weird that I can see a possibility that I would go beyond her some day,” Choi said through a translator, according to organizers. “I’m already starting to look forward to the next Olympics.”

Kim, the daughter of South Korean immigrants, posted that she has known Choi for almost a decade.

“I feel like a proud Mom,” she posted. “The future of snowboarding’s in good hands.”

Kim, the only woman to land back-to-back 1080s in a contest, is taking this season off after repeating as Olympic champion but plans to return ahead of the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Mastro, who was 12th and 13th at the last two Olympics, landed her patented double crippler (two back flips) on two of her runs, but it wasn’t enough. She was the last woman to beat Kim at the 2019 U.S. Open.

Earlier, American Colby Stevenson earned his second X Games ski slopestyle title, one year after taking silver in ski big air’s Olympic debut. Stevenson, who was one millimeter from brain damage in a 2016 car crash, capped his first two of four runs with 1620s, according to commentators, taking the lead for good after the latter.

American Alex Hall, the Olympic slopestyle champion, was seventh.

Later, Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi won women’s snowboard big air, highlighted by a triple underflip. The field lacked 2021 X Games champion Jamie Anderson (pregnant) and 2018 and 2022 Olympic champion Anna Gasser of Austria. Iwabuchi was fourth at the last two Olympics.

Gasser withdrew moments before the competition after placing seventh in Friday’s slopestyle, according to commentators.

Zoe Atkin became the first British female skier to win an X Games title, taking the halfpipe in the absence of Olympic champion Eileen Gu of China. Atkin had two 720s in her fourth and final run to overtake Olympic bronze medalist Rachael Karker of Canada.

Atkin, the 20-year-old and Stanford student and younger sister of 2018 Olympic slopestyle bronze medalist Izzy Atkin, was ninth at the Olympics and never previously won an X Games medal.

Gu withdrew on Friday with a knee injury from a training crash.

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Madison Chock, Evan Bates win historic U.S. ice dance title for figure skaters in their 30s

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Madison Chock and Evan Bates won their fourth national ice dance title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and made all sorts of longevity history.

Chock and Bates, fourth at the Olympics and third at last March’s world championships, totaled 229.75 points between the rhythm dance and free dance. They prevailed by 22.29 over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest margin of victory in a U.S. ice dance since it was shortened from three programs to two in 2011.

“This is probably the best we’ve ever skated in our careers,” Bates said on NBC. “I think that’s the statement that we wanted to make.”

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko took bronze but are likely to be left off the three-couple team for March’s world championships in favor of Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, last year’s U.S. bronze medalists who planned to petition for a worlds spot after withdrawing before nationals citing mental health.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the top U.S. couple at the 2022 Olympics (bronze) and 2022 Worlds (silver), retired after last season.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, who are engaged, became the first dance couple in their 30s to win a U.S. title in the modern era (at least the last 50 years).

Chock and Bates made the nationals podium for an 11th consecutive year, one shy of the record for any discipline.

Bates, who last year became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 13 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that breaks the U.S. record for a single discipline that he shared with Michelle KwanNathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

Those records matter less to Chock and Bates than what they’re hoping is a career first in March: a world championships gold medal.

They earned silver or bronze a total of three times. All of the teams that beat them at last year’s Olympics and worlds aren’t competing this season, but Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier defeated Chock and Bates at December’s Grand Prix Final, which is a sort-of dress rehearsal for worlds.

“If we don’t win gold at worlds, we’ll be disappointed,” Bates, whose first senior nationals in 2008 came when new U.S. women’s singles champion Isabeau Levito was 10 months old, said earlier this month. “We’ve set the goal for ourselves in he past and haven’t met it yet.”

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