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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Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes, beach volleyball’s new sensation, win World Tour Finals

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In just a few months since reuniting, Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes have become not just the best women’s beach volleyball team in the U.S., but also, arguably, the world.

Cheng and Hughes, former partners who got back together for a 2024 Olympic run, won the World Tour Finals for the biggest title for a U.S. pair since April Ross and Alix Klineman took gold in Tokyo.

The 27-year-old Californians swept reigning world champions Duda and Ana Patricia of Brazil 21-18, 21-16 in Sunday’s final in Doha.

Cheng and Hughes have entered four tournaments since reuniting last fall and won all of them — once on the domestic AVP tour and now three international events.

They are rolling into the start of the 2024 Olympic qualifying window next week. It’s likely that the top two U.S. women’s pairs across international events over the course of the next 18 months qualify for the Paris Games.

Cheng and Hughes were previously NCAA champion teammates at USC, then the most promising, young U.S. pro team before splitting in 2018. Cheng made the Tokyo Olympics with Sarah Sponcil (lost in the round of 16), while Hughes’ Tokyo bid flamed out when partner Summer Ross suffered a back injury in 2019.

“It was a lot of the unknown and being young and kind of immature and listening to maybe outside forces and not really knowing how to deal with things as well,” Hughes said in October of their past breakup. “We’ve pretty much moved past that in our relationship. Moving forward with one another, we’re completely different players, and we’re a lot more mature. It feels like the right time. The past is past. We’re just moving forward.”

Cheng and Hughes have taken over from April Ross and Klineman as the top U.S. team. After winning Olympic gold, Klineman underwent shoulder surgery in January 2022 and last week announced she is pregnant and may return from childbirth for a “last-second” 2024 Olympic qualifying bid.

April Ross, a 40-year-old with an Olympic medal of every color, last competed in March, then withdrew before June’s world championships, where she was entered with Emily Day, with an unspecified injury. She has not announced if or when she plans to return to competition.

The U.S. earned at least one beach volleyball medal at every Olympics that the sport has been on the program (since 1996), and a men’s or women’s gold at all but one Olympics. Eighteen months out from the Paris Games, Cheng and Hughes are the best hope to keep the podium streak going.

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Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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