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 , 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 Leyva, John 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.”