Sam Mikulak ‘the best loser’ on rough day at gymnastics nationals

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BOSTON — Sam Mikulak is in first place halfway through the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, but it feels like rock bottom.

“I can’t really do much worse than today,” he said. “The fact that I’m in first right now speaks that it really wasn’t too good of a day for anyone.”

Mikulak, a two-time Olympian, fell twice in six routines on the first of two nights of competition at TD Garden on Thursday. He’s in first largely because the other favorites struggled, too.

Mikulak still leads by 1.05 points over Akash Modi going into Saturday, when he can become the second man to win five U.S. all-around titles since 1970 (Blaine Wilson, 1996-2000).

Defending champion Yul Moldauer was sixth, gingerly shuffling off the floor with a back injury. Full scores are here.

“You don’t want to win on days like this,” said Mikulak, who came off high bar and pommel horse but said he wasn’t affected by a back injury that forced him to take last week very light in training. “I want to be able to slam routines and have it come down to the wire. That’s when it’s really exciting and intense, because everyone’s doing their best, and you want to beat people at their best. Not because you were the best loser.”

The only Olympian in the field hoped the first night would show where he stood among a new generation of gymnasts. After winning all four U.S. all-around titles in the last Olympic cycle, Mikulak only competed on two of six events at the 2017 Nationals following an Achilles tear.

Mikulak, who at 25 would be the oldest U.S. champion since David Durante in 2007, wasn’t pleased with much Thursday except his floor exercise. He finished the routine with a triple twist, the same element that caused his torn Achilles in February 2017, and motioned to pump up a crowd lacking energy.

Mikulak was supposed to vie with the 2017 champion Moldauer, a rising University of Oklahoma senior, for the all-around in Boston. But Moldauer trails by 2.4 points. He fell off the pommel horse, too, and sputtered to close out the night with major errors on parallel bars and high bar.

Moldauer said afterward that he was affected by a cracked disk plate in his back that has bothered him since the NCAA season in the spring. It hurt every time he bent forward.

“He’s experiencing a tremendous amount of tightness, and, despite some pretty heroic efforts, it clearly effected him tonight,” his coach, Mark Williams, tweeted. “We will reevaluate on Saturday.”

Moldauer said he discussed a little bit with Williams about not doing the all-around this week.

“But we weren’t going to let that [the back injury] just get in the way,” he said. “When you come to the championships, you need to do six events. You need to do all-around both days. You need to show what you have if you want to prove yourself to be on that team.”

The world championships team.

Gymnasts are competing not only for national titles this week but also to impress a selection committee for worlds.

In a change from recent years, the five-man roster for October’s worlds in Doha will not be named this weekend. Instead, eight men will be chosen for a September selection camp to determine the world team and three alternates. Results from nationals and the camp will be weighted equally, so there is still some pressure to perform well now.

Mikulak and Moldauer could mess up here and at the camp and still make that team. They are the most established American gymnasts.

Mikulak has been the best American over the last five years, though he has yet to earn an individual Olympic or world medal. Moldauer was the only U.S. men’s medalist at last year’s worlds (floor exercise bronze).

Nobody else stepped up in a big way Thursday. The U.S. men were fifth at the Rio Olympics and at the last worlds with a team event in 2015. That marked the first back-to-back global championships without a medal since 2006 and 2007.

“We don’t really want Team USA to look like it did today at the world stage,” said Modi, an Olympic alternate who didn’t fall Thursday but stumbled, hopped and had leg separation. “Not that everyone looked very bad, but it was not sharp. It wasn’t the crisp and polished gymnastics that we really want to be known for.”

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