Sam Mikulak halfway to record romp at P&G Championships; Worlds team unclear

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INDIANAPOLIS — Sam Mikulak is clearly the best U.S. men’s gymnast for a third straight year. What’s left to be decided at the P&G Championships is which five men will join him on the World Championships team.

Mikulak, a 2012 Olympian, leads the P&G Championships all-around by a comfortable 2.35 points after six of 12 routines (full results here). He scored 92 points Friday night at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, bettering his first-day score from his 2013 and 2014 title runs.

“I would’ve liked a little more stuck landings, put the icing on the cake,” said Mikulak, whose only major error was putting his hands down on a faulty floor exercise tumbling pass. He could break the record for margin of victory — 3.4 points — under the Code of Points implemented in 2006 with a strong showing Sunday (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 3-4:30 p.m. ET).

Mikulak, who trailed by the same 2.35 points after the opening night last year, nailed his first five routines Friday, including a meet-record 16.25 on parallel bars. He’s en route to becoming the first man to win three straight U.S. all-around titles since Paul Hamm from 2002-04.

That Mikulak’s best score was on bars is notable because it was his lowest-scoring event at both the 2014 P&G Championships and the 2014 World Championships all-around. He scored in the 13s at those meets. He called the look of his new routine, which can be seen here, more international, polished and detail-oriented.

“It’s showing a level of professionalism,” said Mikulak, who was 12th in the all-around at the 2014 Worlds and is still looking for his first individual Olympic or Worlds medal. “I’m not just doing the skills; I’m showing off the skills to you. You want to make it look easy. That’s what gymnastics is all about.”

Mikulak’s coming from a different place as a professional gymnast. He stuffed his belongings in his car May 15 and drove from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Colorado Springs, Colo., moving into the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

Mikulak, 22, won three NCAA all-around titles at Michigan, the first in 2011, but he had exhausted NCAA eligibility.

“I kind of needed to be training with guys who had a similar goal that wasn’t NCAA Championships,” he said.

The goal for everyone chasing Mikulak in the all-around standings is the same going into Sunday. Not so much to catch Mikulak, which may be impossible, but to impress a World Championships selection committee.

The six-man team for the World Championships, plus two replacement athletes, will be named within 24 hours of the meet ending and likely on Sunday night.

The biggest factor in deciding the roster will be maximizing the team final score at Worlds (three men on each apparatus for 18 total routines), U.S. national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said after Friday’s competition. The U.S. men won team bronze medals at the last two Worlds in 2011 and 2014, behind China and Japan.

The top Worlds team contenders are Donnell Whittenburg, who is second to Mikulak at the halfway point and made last year’s Worlds team, and third-place Paul Ruggeri III. The tattooed Ruggeri has never made a Worlds or Olympic team, but he has been a Worlds alternate three times.

Then there’s Olympian Jacob Dalton, who made the last three Worlds teams. Dalton pulled out of the P&G Championships earlier Friday with a small labrum tear in a shoulder and said he planned to petition for a spot on the Worlds team.

Mazeika made no guarantees that Dalton would be chosen, even though Dalton could be picked and later withdraw if his injury isn’t healed by Worlds in the last week of October.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the case of two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton, who at 29 hopes to become the oldest man to make a U.S. Olympic or Worlds team since Blaine Wilson at the Athens 2004 Games.

Horton is in fourth place in the all-around despite a disastrous vault where momentum on his landing carried him past two mats, off the elevated competition floor and nearly into a camera stand (video here). He scored 14.0.

“I don’t know where I stand in the eyes of a lot of people at the moment,” said Horton, whose last global meet was the 2012 Olympics, two major surgeries ago. “I feel like I’ve kind of got a chip on my shoulder and a lot to prove. … I feel like I am close to being back in my old form. … I have a little bit of confidence [to make the Worlds team], not quite sure.”

Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva is in fifth place, followed by past Worlds team members Chris Brooks (sixth), Brandon Wynn (seventh), Alex Naddour (eighth) and Steven Legendre (10th). All erred on at least one apparatus Friday, counting scores in the 13s.

Key will be filling spots on potential weak events at Worlds. Pommel horse has long been a struggle for the Americans, and the leader in that event after the first night is Alec Yoder, the 18-year-old Youth Olympic all-around bronze medalist.

But Yoder is 20th in the all-around standings, just adding to the dilemma facing the Worlds team selectors.

The P&G Championships continue Saturday with the final night of women’s competition (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 8-10 p.m. ET). Simone Biles leads by 1.4 points with Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman in third and fourth place, respectively.

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World Athletics Athletes of the Year: Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, Mondo Duplantis

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Mondo Duplantis were named World Athletics Athletes of the Year after world record-breaking performances in 2022.

McLaughlin-Levrone, who lowered her 400m hurdles world record twice this year, won the award for the first time. She became the first American to win Athlete of the Year since fellow 400m hurdler Dalilah Muhammad in 2019.

“I would describe 2022 for myself by just saying incredible,” McLaughlin-Levrone said. “Everything that we aimed to do we were able to accomplish.”

The other finalists were Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan, who broke the 100m hurdles world record en route to the world title; Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won her fifth world 100m title; Peru’s Kimberly Garcia, who swept the 20km and 35km race walk world titles, and Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, who broke her own triple jump world record and swept the indoor and outdoor world titles.

McLaughlin-Levrone has said she wants to add the flat 400m to her program in the coming years. She has never run that event at a senior championship meet, but showed her flat potential in the 4x400m relay at worlds in July. Her split — 47.91 seconds — made her the seventh-fastest relay performer in history and second-fastest in the last 33 years behind Allyson Felix.

At next summer’s world championships, the women’s 400m hurdles first round heats start 2 hours and 20 minutes before the women’s 400m semifinals. Top-level pros rarely race multiple times in one session in a distance longer than 200 meters at any meet.

Duplantis, the Louisiana-raised Swede, won the men’s award for the second time in three years. He upped his pole vault world record three times in 2022 and swept the world indoor and outdoor and Diamond League titles in the event.

“It’s probably been by far the best year that I’ve ever had,” Duplantis said.

The other men’s finalists were Moroccan steeplechaser Soufiane El Bakkali, who went undefeated in 2022; Norwegian runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the world outdoor 5000m champion who ran the world’s fastest mile in 21 years; Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own marathon world record by 30 seconds, and American Noah Lyles, who broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old national record in the 200m.

Duplantis will likely try to continue upping his world record one centimeter at a time like Ukraine legend Sergey Bubka did on an almost annual basis from 1984 through 1994. Duplantis’ current record is 6.21 meters. The next significant milestone is 6.25 meters, or 20 feet, 6 inches.

“We’ll so how high, but I want to push it higher than people think is even possible,” he said.

Erriyon Knighton became the first athlete to twice win the Rising Star award, given to the top U20 track and field athlete.

Knighton, 18, took 200m bronze at the world championships on July 21 in Eugene, Oregon, becoming the youngest individual sprint medalist in championships history. He was part of a U.S. medals sweep with Lyles and Kenny Bednarek.

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A wild Grand Prix Final has a quadruple Axel, the Brits and a figure skating tale for the ages

Ilia Malinin
Getty
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The world’s best figure skaters gather for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. The Who’s Who is a very different group than from February’s Olympics, as expected, with the fall Grand Prix Series also producing some unpredictable stories.

Of the 18 skaters who won Olympic medals outside of the team event, just two of them competed internationally this fall. As was known before the season, all Russians are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. China’s top skaters didn’t enter the Grand Prix Series. Nathan Chen and the French ice dance couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on indefinite, possibly permanent breaks after winning long-awaited golds.

It is time for new stars to emerge. That happened. American Ilia Malinin, last year’s world junior champion at age 17, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition in September. Then he did it again in October, and again in November.

It is time for new stories to emerge. The Grand Prix Final is the most exclusive event in figure skating — taking the top six per discipline from the Grand Prix Series — since it was introduced in 1996. This year, Belgium and Great Britain qualified skaters for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese men who were seventh and eighth at their national championships last season are in the field. As is a 39-year-old pairs’ skater from Canada who competed against Michelle Kwan in the 6.0 scoring era.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S. qualified skaters into the Final in every discipline for the first time in 15 years. The team is led statistically by Malinin, the world No. 1 bidding to be the second-youngest man to win a Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko.

Malinin, whose mom won the 1999 Grand Prix Final, is one half of the most anticipated head-to-head showdown this week. He takes on Japan’s Shoma Uno for the first time since the world championships in March, when Uno won and Malinin placed ninth in his debut on that stage. This season, Malinin and Uno each won their two separate Grand Prix starts, with Malinin having the best total score by a scant 61 hundredths of a point.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir called Malinin the favorite for the Final and for March’s worlds (which could include Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, who has been sidelined this fall due to leg and ankle injuries). But Weir also said that if Malinin and Uno skate clean this week, the 24-year-old Uno has the advantage.

“He’s had the longevity. He’s had the time in front of these top judges. And artistically, he’s so excellent,” Weir said.

The world’s highest-scoring women’s singles skater this season will compete at the Final, but in the junior division. Japan’s Mao Shimada won both of her junior Grand Prix starts. She is 14 years old, and with the age limit being raised in coming seasons will not be old enough for the next Olympics in 2026 (reminiscent of countrywoman Mao Asada, who was too young the last time Italy hosted the Winter Games in 2006).

Without Shimada, and without the Russians who dominated recent seasons, the women’s field is the most closely bunched at the Final. Mai Mihara, who missed the Olympics after placing fourth at Japan’s Nationals last December, was the lone woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Kaori Sakamoto, last season’s world champion in the Russians’ absence, has the top score this season among senior women (and a shout out from Janet Jackson). But the six skaters at the Final are separated by just 4.47 points in best scores this fall.

American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, is the youngest woman in the field by four years. NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said that Levito has a total package of jumps, artistry and competitive fire not seen in U.S. skating in many years. Levito, who has made short films, including “The Pickle Murder,” is reminiscent of Sasha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal in 2006.

“There’s never a hand, finger, hair out of place when it comes to Isabeau’s skating,” Lipinski said. “Looking back at my first year as a senior, I was terrified. I looked like a junior coming up to the senior ranks. Isabeau, she’s gone past that phase.”

Pairs’ skating saw the highest turnover. The top five teams at the Olympics were Russian and Chinese, and none have competed internationally since. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took advantage at March’s worlds, becoming the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Knierim and Frazier won both of their Grand Prix starts this fall, but were flawed. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who took silver at worlds, averaged 10 more points in their separate Grand Prix victories.

“Comparing people based on the scores that they accrue in different competitions is a nice way to see how people are faring in front of international panels, but it’s not a direct comparison between the two at all,” Weir said. “They’re very evenly matched.”

But the coolest story in pairs, and arguably in all of figure skating, is 39-year-old Canadian Deanna Stellato-Dudek. With partner Maxime Deschamps, she became the oldest Grand Prix podium finisher in October and the oldest champion in November. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles from Chicagoland, retired from figure skating in 2001 due to injuries, then came back in 2016 in pairs and switched nationality.

Weir recently came across photos of him with Stellato-Dudek when they competed at the same junior Grand Prix event in Norway in 1999.

“I’m pretty sure she was skating when I was skating, so that is a crazy feat in itself,” said Lipinski, whose last competition was winning the 1998 Olympics.

Ice dance, usually the most predictable of the four disciplines, sprung surprises this fall. Three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top returning couple based on results from last season’s Olympics and worlds, but the Americans rank outside the top three this fall by results and best total score.

Still, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said they’re looking better than ever, having improved from their first Grand Prix to their second Grand Prix.

“The challenge for them is they’ve been so good for so long that they don’t want to get stale,” Agosto said of a couple that’s in their 12th season together. “They don’t want people to start to think, well, you know, two seasons ago was better than this, or five seasons ago was better than this. They want to always be reinventing, but then also capitalizing on their biggest strengths.”

Canadian veterans Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, ranked third among returning couples going into the fall, won both of their Grand Prix starts with the world’s top two scores across all events. Agosto believes that the field is closer than the point totals suggest and that some couples have been underscored, including Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who qualified into the Final in the sixth and last spot.

Agosto said that Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, Great Britain’s first Grand Prix Final qualifiers since 2009, can “blow the roof off” with their Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez rhythm dance and Lady Gaga free dance.

“You can just feel the the intensity that everyone is bringing after their Olympic experience and coming back and feeling rejuvenated and maybe feeling the adrenaline effect of having a little bit more of an opportunity because Papadakis and Cizeron are not there, because the Russians are not there,” Agosto said. “I’ve really seen across the board this group stepping up from last season, so I don’t think that it would just be a clear OK, well, if those other teams were in the game this year, they would, by default, be on top.”

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