Sam Mikulak wins fifth U.S. all-around gymnastics title, ties record

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BOSTON — Sam Mikulak‘s record-tying fifth U.S. all-around title came by his largest margin of victory. What he’s really yearning for is a first individual world championships medal.

Mikulak, the only Olympian in the field, added to his lead from Thursday and easily won by 4.75 points at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Saturday. Yul Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. champion in Mikulak’s absence, improved from sixth to finish second.

“This is my favorite national championship that I’ve won so far,” Mikulak told Andrea Joyce on NBC. “I finally feel like I’m in peak shape.”

Full scores are here.

Mikulak, 25, joined Blaine Wilson as the only men to win five U.S. all-around titles. He also became the oldest champ since David Durante in 2007.

But Mikulak is no longer satisfied with gold medals at nationals. He is one of the best American gymnasts to never earn an individual Olympic or world medal (Wilson is also on this list). He called this title “a stepping stone.”

Mikulak is sure to be named to the five-man team for October’s world championships, his next chance for that first individual global podium. Tokyo 2020 would be his third and likely final shot at an Olympic medal (Wilson won his only Olympic medal at his third and final Games in 2004).

“I’m trying to look into the world and international scene a little bit more, and if this [national] title comes along in the process, that’s a little cherry on top,” Mikulak said before the meet. “Until I can check some of that off will I feel like I’ve earned my right to retire.”

Mikulak hit all six routines Saturday, including a 15.25 on parallel bars that was the highest score of the two-day meet. He totaled 87.75 points. That’s 2.6 more than Thursday, when Mikulak fell twice and still had the best all-around score thanks to major mistakes from the other favorites.

“If I can go out and do this [repeat Saturday’s routines at worlds], I think I can make a very strong case for [a world medal],” said Mikulak, who didn’t do the all-around at worlds and nationals last year coming back from a torn Achilles.

Nationals end Sunday with the last day of women’s competition live on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app from 8-10 p.m. ET. Simone Biles carries a huge lead, eyeing a record fifth U.S. women’s all-around title as the first non-teen winner since 1971.

GYMNASTICS NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?

Next for the U.S. men? World championships in Doha in October. Usually, the world team would be named right after nationals, but this year a September selection camp has been added. Up to eight men will be invited to that camp, after which the five-man world team will be named.

It could be a very new-look squad aside from the likely leaders Mikulak and Moldauer. Allan Bower and Donothan Bailey, who were third and fourth Saturday, have never been to a worlds. Neither has Alec Yoder, who won the national title on pommel horse, making him valuable.

All but one of Mikulak’s teammates from the last two Olympics have retired. The one who hasn’t — Rio pommel horse bronze medalist Alex Naddour — has been suspended since June for unspecified reasons.

Another top American, Marvin Kimble, withdrew before nationals due to injury but is training at his Wisconsin gym. He is petitioning for a spot on the national team to get into the worlds selection camp.

Yet another, Eddie Penev, is out with a torn ACL. Olympic alternate Donnell Whittenburg, competed here, but only on parallel bars and still rings, not fully back from November torn rotator cuff surgery.

Kimble, Mikulak, Moldauer, Naddour, Penev and Whittenburg were the U.S. entries at the 2017 Worlds, which only had individual events. Only Moldauer came back with a medal, a floor exercise bronze.

U.S. high-performance director Brett McClure has team medal aspirations but said before nationals that China, Japan and Russia are in a different league in terms of routine difficulty.

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.

Mikulak has been a part of recent U.S. teams that underwhelmed. He hopes that what happened at nationals — everybody struggling on the first day but nailing routines on the second, will portend success.

“Usually we do well in qualifications and then choke in team finals,” at the Olympics and worlds, Mikulak said. “So if we do the opposite, I’m totally cool with that.”

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Marvel superheroes inspire Bradie Tennell, Starr Andrews

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Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews have something in common beyond their obvious figure skating talents: both skaters look to Marvel superheroes for inspiration.

The 20-year-old Tennell, who opened her 2018-19 international season with a big win over two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at the Autumn International Classic in Oakville, Ontario, counts Iron Man and Spider-Man as her favorites.

Believe it or not, Iron Man – also known as Tony Stark – figures into Tennell’s free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.”

“After I land the triple salchow toward the end of my program, I go down on one knee and do what I call my Iron Man pose, because that’s what Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) does in the first Avengers movie,” she said.

Summoning superhuman strength worked. Tennell had a personal-best free skate in Oakville. But in other ways, she’s the opposite of her hero: Iron Man survives his adventures largely be wearing a special suit of armor, while Tennell is all about dropping her guard this season and being more expressive on the ice.

“I believe in myself a lot more,” she said. “I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Andrews, 17, is inspired by the noble and determined Black Panther, depicted in the 2018 film by Chadwick Boseman.

“There is always a challenge and you always have to fight to get what you want,” she said.

“I wanted something different this year, I definitely wanted no lyrics, and an African theme,” she added. “When I watched Black Panther, I said, ‘Yeah, I want something like (the music in) this’ and Derrick (Delmore) pulled up some music.”

Delmore, who coaches Andrews in Los Angeles, wracked his brain to find the right material. Ultimately, he choreographed her free to a medley he calls “African Tribal Xotica.”

“The music is from five different things,” he said. “She saw the movie, loved it, and sent me some music from that movie she cut herself that I didn’t love. She was inspired to do something in that genre. I finally thought of music I used a few years back for another skater, and I played it for her, and as soon as it came on she said, ‘Oh, this is what I want.’”

What Andrews wants now is a triple axel. She attempted the three-and-a-half revolution jump in her free skate in Oakville, but it was downgraded (judged short of rotation) by the technical panel. Still, she placed a respectable seventh in a tough international field.

“I’m excited for the day I get it,” Andrews said. “I just have to keep working on it. One day I will land it and will be super-confident and happy.  It’s not new to me, I’ve been working on it for a while. That little extra effort, and then I’ll land it.”

Only two other senior U.S. ladies – Tonya Harding, back in the early 1990s, and Mirai Nagasu at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February – have landed the jump in international competition, but Andrews believes it is becoming almost commonplace.  While Tennell and Andrews were competing in Oakville, Japanese teenager Rika Kihira landed two triple axels, including one in combination with a triple toe, at Ondrej Nepela Trophy.

“There are so many more people doing it know. I feel like it’s not surprising for women to do it,” Andrews said. “They are doing it in junior and even in advanced novice, like Alysa Liu (at the Asian Open), which was amazing.”

Delmore supports his student’s ambition, with a few caveats.

“Right now, I want her to get used to doing the axel,” he said. “I want it to be a regular part of her competitive experience, so she knows how to keep going when it doesn’t go well, and hopefully when she gets it, she knows what it’s like to have that amazing moment and to keep going.”

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic despite shaky performance

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Yuzuru Hanyu won his third Autumn Classic International crown in Oakville, Ontario on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride.

The two-time Olympic champion’s debut of his “Origin” free skate, inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s famous “Tribute to Njinsky” program, had many fine elements: opening quadruple loop and toe loop jumps, plus two triple axels in the program’s second half; a pair of superb closing spins with fittingly baroque positions; and promising step and choreography sequences that preserved Plushenko’s flair, while adding a touch more refinement and control.

But a face-forward fall on a quad salchow, followed by a popped quad toe, meant Hanyu’s 165.91 points put him second in the free skate to his 16-year-old training partner, Junhwan Cha of South Korea. His total score, including Friday’s short program, was 263.65 points, just under four points higher than Cha’s second-place total.

At this point in the season, many other skaters – not including Plushenko – would have shrugged  off the imperfections in the challenging program and been happy to put a few miles on the choreography. But the 23-year-old Hanyu’s perfectionism runs year-round.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” he said, as translated from Japanese. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

Hanyu likely remembers this event last season, when a mistake-riddled free skate put him second to longtime rival Javier Fernandez of Spain. This time around, the Japanese superstar, who trains at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, was especially disappointed that his jump glitches meant he could not attempt a quad-triple axel sequence, a combination that might have been worth some 20 points.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” he said. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Just as he did after Friday’s short program, where a botched spin cost him several points, Hanyu vowed to work harder.

“This is where I am right now, and I need to practice more,” he said.

Hanyu has plenty of time: his first Grand Prix event is in Finland on November 2.

The skating world may best remember this event as the week Cha came into his own. The Korean teen, who landed a quad salchow in his short on Friday, hit a quad toe to start his free to “Romeo and Juliet” – just the second time he has landed the jump in competition. While his quad salchow was judge under rotated, he went on to land two triple-triple combinations and two triple axels, all done with style and maturity beyond his years. The program earned 169.22 points to win the day.

“Last season, I didn’t skate so well. I had some hip and back (injuries) and boot problems,” Cha, who also said he had recently had a growth spurt, said. “Now I feel much stronger, and I have been working hard.”

Asked if he had a skating idol – perhaps his training partner, Hanyu – Cha demurred.

“I don’t have just one idol,” he said. “I like many different skaters, for different reasons. I will like one skater for his jumps; another skater for his spins.”

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Canada’s Roman Sadovsky, fourth after the short program, stepped up to win the bronze medal with 233.86 points after landing two quads, a salchow and toe, in his free skate.

Jason Brown may be disappointed in his fourth-place finish here, but it cannot have come as a big surprise: the 2015 U.S. champion has said that since moving to Toronto this spring to train under Orser and Wilson, he has been re-learning his jump technique. He called the move “a four-year project.”

“I cannot speak more highly of Brian, Tracy, Lee (Barkell) and Karen (Preston), the whole team at Cricket Club,” Brown, 23, said. “They have been really been patient with me and worked with me methodically. … We’re starting from the ground up. Each day I’m learning something new, each day they are helping me work through something, whether that me a mental thing, physically getting a jump,  or the pacing of a program.”

The debut of Brown’s free to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Hazy Days of Winter” was bittersweet: his blades sung during spins, step sequences and transitions, but the jumps weren’t there. An opening quad salchow was doubled; a triple axel, popped into a single. He earned 144.33 points to place fifth in the free and fourth overall with 233.23.

Wilson, though, said they are just getting started.

“Let’s face it, he is a brilliant skater and he’s gotten close to the top of the world,” Wilson said of Brown, who was fourth in the world in 2015. “It’s a fine line trying to find room for improvement, and so that’s what we are trying to do. We are throwing a lot at him. We’re going to pull back a little.”

“What he brings, though, cannot be ignored,” she added. “My husband can be in the rink and know nothing about skating, and be mesmerized by what Jason does. He could teach clinics for every step sequence and position details. He is integral to what the sport needs.”

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