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Sam Mikulak leads new-look U.S. men’s gymnastics team for worlds

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The U.S. men’s gymnastics program tapped a fresh-faced team to avoid its longest medal drought since the turn of the millennium. It didn’t have much else choice.

Two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, coming off his fifth national all-around title, and 2017 U.S. champ Yul Moldauer headlined the roster named after a two-day selection competition Saturday.

Mikulak and Moldauer were all but locks after going one-two at nationals in August. A selection committee looked at results from nationals and last week’s meet, though Mikulak and Moldauer automatically made the team based on their scores.

None of the other three team members have competed at an Olympics or world championships. That’s Rio Olympic alternate Akash ModiAlec Yoder and Colin Van Wicklen.

The quintet is tasked with reaching high-performance director Brett McClure‘s team medal aspirations at the world championships in Doha that start in one month.

McClure, a 2004 Olympic team silver medalist, 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.

The Americans last went three straight global championships missing the podium in 1997, 1999 and 2000.

In addition to the team, Mikulak, 25, yearns for an individual medal. He is at the moment one of the greatest U.S. gymnasts in history without an Olympic medal or an individual world championships medal in his collection.

Moldauer, the 22-year-old NCAA all-around champion from the University of Oklahoma, does own an individual medal. He earned floor exercise bronze at his worlds debut last year.

Modi, the Taco Bell and SpongeBob SquarePants-loving mechanical engineering master’s student at Stanford, was sixth in the all-around at nationals but improved to fourth at the selection camp competition.

McClure noted Modi’s ability to contribute on three of the six events — parallel bars, high bar and pommel horse. The U.S. is a bit weak on high bar, McClure said.

Yoder, 21, is known for his prowess on a past weak event — pommel horse. He won the national title on horse last month and was second to Mikulak at last week’s competition, beating 2017 World team member Marvin Kimble for a roster spot.

McClure praised Van Wicklen’s talent as the top vaulter at the selection camp meet. Moldauer’s former Oklahoma teammate was eighth in the all-around at nationals and fifth of the eight men at the selection meet.

The three men who missed the team were Kimble, Allan Bower (second and third in the U.S. all-around the last two years, but missed both world teams) and Trevor Howard.

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.

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Sam Mikulak three-peats at P&G Championships on fall-filled day

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INDIANAPOLIS — Sam Mikulak spoke for the entire U.S. men’s gymnastics program shortly after clinching his third straight national all-around title Sunday afternoon.

“We’ve got things we can fix,” he said.

The Olympian Mikulak became the first man in 11 years to three-peat at the P&G Championships, but his winning margin of 4.35 points (a record under the nine-year-old scoring system) was more due to the struggles of others than his own execution over two days of competition.

The top five men in the all-around standings going into Sunday all crashed to the mat on high bar, Mikulak included.

There were more mishaps, particularly on the U.S.’ longtime Achilles’ heel event, pommel horse. From form breaks to messy dismounts to scary falls, such as 18-year-old Alec Yoder going head first to the floor.

“Every one of us made a stupid mistake,” said two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton, who dropped off high bar and pommel horse, from fourth to ninth place overall, and out of the World Championships team picture. “Cost me top three in the all-around.”

Mikulak and second-place Donnell Whittenburg clinched two spots on the six-man team for the World Championships. The other four men, including Olympic all-aroud bronze medalist Danell Leyva, were announced later Sunday.

The U.S. will be without Olympians John Orozco and Jacob Dalton at the World Championships. Orozco re-tore an Achilles in June and is out until 2016. Dalton withdrew before the P&G Championships with small shoulder labrum tear.

Orozco and Dalton finished second and third behind Mikulak at the 2014 P&G Championships.

Watch Mikulak’s routines: Parallel Bars | Still Rings

The U.S. earned bronze medals at the last two World Championships to include team competitions, in 2011 and 2014. In between, it finished fifth at the London Olympics after scoring the highest in qualifying.

What happened Sunday was eerily reminiscent of that Olympic team final, where the U.S. counted falls on pommel horse, floor exercise and vault.

“In the long scheme of things, it’s not this competition that really matters,” Mikulak said. “It’s a test event, would you say, for World Championships. We’ve got, I think, 10 weeks until Worlds.”

The Worlds team medal picture?

China and Japan took gold and silver, respectively, at every Olympics and World Championships since 2007. The U.S., if it corrects the slew of mistakes, appears to be fighting for bronze at best in Glasgow.

The favorite for bronze could very well be Worlds host Great Britain, which beat the U.S. for that medal at the Olympics and was fourth at the 2014 Worlds in Nanning, China.

The absences of Orozco and Dalton leave gaping holes. Nobody appeared ready to fill them on Sunday, but the difference at Worlds is that the six team members will only compete on their best events, rather than all six apparatuses as they did Sunday. Three men out of six perform per apparatus in the Worlds team final.

Mikulak remained optimistic as he sat in the shadow of the struggles, on the high bar podium shortly after the competition Sunday afternoon.

“The best part is that I think everyone can step up,” Mikulak said. “Maybe having some new variety in the mix from what we’re originally used to will be kind of a good thing. It could be some new spark that no one’s seen before.”

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Sam Mikulak’s road to Rio a different path than London; P&G Championships men’s preview

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INDIANAPOLIS — USA Gymnastics had enough room on the side of a building across from the Bankers Life Fieldhouse to feature four athletes on a promotional ad for this week’s P&G Championships.

They chose three women — London Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman and two-time World all-around champion Simone Biles — and one man.

That’s spikey-haired Sam Mikulak waving beneath the words “Countdown to Rio!”

“Everyone’s talking about the road to Rio,” Mikulak said in a USA Gymnastics interview Wednesday. “No one was talking to me about the road to London. … It’s just nice to have a little more confidence from the fans and everyone else … and be a prospect for these next Olympics.”

Four years ago, Mikulak had reason to believe he wasn’t considered an Olympic hopeful.

The previous two U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics teams had included nobody below the legal drinking age, and Mikulak was coming off his freshman season at the University of Michigan.

Plus, he couldn’t compete at the 2011 U.S. Championships after breaking both of his ankles.

“It wasn’t until probably May [2012], or whenever the following [U.S. Championships] of the Olympic year was that I finally burst onto the scene,” said Mikulak, who finished third in the U.S. all-around in 2012 and earned a spot on the Olympic team as the only man with no World Championships experience.

This week, Mikulak is the marquee man. He’s the two-time reigning U.S. all-around champion with a shot to become the first man in 11 years to three-peat after 12 routines over two days concluding Sunday (broadcast schedule here).

The last man to capture three in a row was Paul Hamm from 2002-04.

“That’s one of the greatest people you can be compared to,” Mikulak said.

But he can’t compete with Hamm’s international accolades — 2003 World and 2004 Olympic all-around gold medals.

Mikulak made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team at age 19 and the last two World Championships teams, but he has zero individual medals from those meets. Teammates Danell LeyvaJohn Orozco and Jacob Dalton all did earn individual medals.

“I would definitely say a solid World performance is exactly what I want,” Mikulak said of his overall goal for 2015.

He was fourth in the 2013 Worlds high bar final, fifth in the 2012 Olympic vault final and sixth in the 2013 Worlds all-around final.

His domestic competition this week doesn’t figure to be as fierce. Neither Orozco nor Dalton, who finished second and third at the 2014 P&G Championships, are competing in the all-around in Indianapolis.

Orozco is out until 2016 after re-tearing his right Achilles in June. Dalton will compete on at most two of six events (floor exercise and vault), if any at all due to a shoulder injury.

Mikulak is almost a shoo-in to be one of the six men named shortly after Sunday’s competition to the team for the World Championships (the last week of October in Glasgow, Scotland). Dalton could still be named to his fourth straight Worlds team, even if he doesn’t compete at the P&G Championships.

“It definitely doesn’t help my case to not compete,” Dalton, who may wait until Friday morning to decide if he competes, said Wednesday, “but with the limited training that I’ve had, it wouldn’t really help for me to go out and fall and get hurt.”

The favorites to challenge Mikulak’s three-peat bid are 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva and Donnell Whittenburg, who was the second U.S. all-arounder at the 2014 Worlds (Mikulak finished 12th; Whittenburg 17th).

“It would definitely be a highlight of my career if I came home with a national title, but mostly I’m not thinking about that,” Whittenburg said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “I don’t want to think ahead too far, because then it just starts making me nervous.”

There are others with Worlds experience, from Alex Naddour (valuable for finishing first or second on the U.S.’ weakest event, pommel horse, at the last four U.S. Championships) to Steven Legendre (2013 Worlds vault silver medalist) to Brandon Wynn (2013 Worlds rings bronze medalist) to Chris Brooks (2010 Worlds team member).

But perhaps the most intriguing hopefuls are two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton, 29, and 2014 Youth Olympic all-around bronze medalist Alec Yoder, who is 18 years old.

Horton, who recently splashed out on “American Ninja Warrior,” finished eighth in the all-around at the 2014 P&G Championships in his first competition since the 2012 Olympics, missing that Worlds team. Horton said this week he feels as good as he has in six years.

He’s taken difficulty out of his routines, lessening his start values, but feels he can score higher overall with better execution.

Changes came after what he called the second-worst meet of his life at the Winter Cup on Feb. 21, where Horton placed 18th in the all-around, a whopping 10.25 points behind winner Paul Ruggeri III (a contender to make his first Worlds team after being an alternate on three of the last four).

“I had to set my pride aside,” Horton said, stepping back after Winter Cup to reassess his routines. “I’ve always been the guy who had really high start values. I’m not as fast or as strong or as powerful [as before].”

Yoder, about to embark an a collegiate career at Ohio State, could become the youngest U.S. man to make a Worlds team since Leyva in 2009.

Yoder, at 5 feet, 8 inches, is taller than Mikulak, Leyva, Dalton and Horton. He finished eighth in the Winter Cup all-around, and that was without Mikulak or Dalton competing on every event. So he has work to do.

“He’s one of the guys that knows how to stick his landings and capitalize on an exclamation point,” Mikulak said in February. “He’s a taller gymnast, so it really helps him accentuate his lines on pommel horse. I think that’s an event that the U.S. is pretty weak on. That’s where he’s going to find his biggest strength on the U.S. team.”

Yoder is not too confident of making the Worlds team, though.

“I don’t know if that’s something that’s attainable,” he said Wednesday.

Mikulak, who began his college career at Michigan in 2010-11, sees parellels with Yoder, who is one Olympic cycle behind the two-time reigning U.S. champion.

“He’s got some start value that he needs to get up,” Mikulak said. “That’s kind of where I was at when I was his age. The year before the Olympics, I just pushed my start values quite significantly, and it was enough to make the Olympic team.”

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