KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sam Mikulak winning a sixth U.S. all-around title by the largest margin in history is fantastic for Sam Mikulak. But it might not be the best result for a U.S. men’s gymnastics program that’s in a team medal drought.
“It’s good and bad,” Mikulak said after tallying 174.15 points over two nights of competition, prevailing by a Simone Biles-like 5.55 points. “It is just a weird place for the U.S. right now. You could probably make the argument that, maybe, this is the easiest time period for USA Gymnastics for a guy like me, and so it doesn’t quite hold as much to it right now.
“It’s nice to have margin and to be scoring the way I do, but I guess, in my own mind, I try keeping the bar to where Sam wants the bar to be.”
That bar is out of reach for the rest of the country.
“Hopefully this young group can start getting on his level,” said Yul Moldauer, a distant runner-up to Mikulak a second straight year, “but Sam’s so much older than us.”
Mikulak was the only man in the field with Olympic experience. He watered-down routines on the opening night Thursday and still took a 2.75-point lead into Saturday’s final night of competition.
Mikulak broke his tie with retired, three-time Olympian Blaine Wilson for the most U.S. men’s all-around titles in the last 50 years. He broke his own record for margin of victory since the perfect 10 was replaced by an open-ended scoring system in 2006.
Mikulak, known for falling once or twice among 12 routines at a nationals, said he went 12 for 12 this week and that it felt the best of his six crowns. The gap to the rest of the field widened due to injuries. Full results are here.
Moldauer, who earned the 2017 U.S. title while Mikulak was limited by an Achilles tear, took around a month off this spring due to elbow inflammation. Another 2018 World team member, Colin Van Wicklen, withdrew after sustaining a concussion in Thursday’s warm-ups.
Jonathan Horton, a retired, two-time Olympian who in September will help select the five-man team for October’s world championships, said it’s not ideal for Mikulak to dominate domestically year after year.
“It’s nice to see Sam leading the charge, but it would be good to see some guys on his tail,” he said.
The U.S. men last earned a world championships medal in 2014 (bronze), making this their longest major meet podium drought since the turn of the millennium. They were fifth at the last two Olympics despite placing first and second in qualifying. They were fourth at last year’s worlds behind powers China, Japan and Russia.
“The team collectively is doing a good job, but there’s a bit of a tentative feel to U.S. men’s gymnastics right now,” Horton said. “Being tentative is not going to get us on the podium, but we have a year [until the Olympics]. That’s enough time, but we need guys to start pushing.”
Mikulak is comparing himself only to foreign competitors.
At 2018 Worlds, he went into the last all-around rotation in third place but struggled on his best event, high bar, to drop to fifth. Mikulak finally earned his first career individual world medal a few days later, a bittersweet high bar bronze.
It’s clear that the U.S. is leaning on Mikulak more than ever in his eight years on the national team.
Last year, he was put on all six apparatuses in the team final, which no U.S. man had ever done since the format switched to three-up, three-count after the 2000 Olympics. But that kind of strategy could work out in the U.S.’ favor come the Tokyo Olympics, where team sizes drop from five gymnasts to four, and multiple countries will be putting their stars on every apparatus.
“Sam is creating very positive rhythm doing all six events that we want to continue to keep consistent,” U.S. high-performance director Brett McClure said. “If he makes it all six in the lineup, we’re not worried at all.”
McClure is optimistic, noting he has seen personal-best performances from other top Americans in the last year. His stated goal since moving into the leadership role post-Rio has been to get the team back on the podium.
“It only gives us a little bit more confidence knowing that, hey, maybe this is our year to sneak on the podium,” he said. “We feel good about our chances.”
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