It's hail to the victor once again.
Sam Mikulak, a three-time NCAA all-around champion at the University of Michigan, mounted a dramatic comeback in the P&G Gymnastics Championships senior men's final to reclaim his national all-around crown. He finished with a two-day total of 180.650, just ahead of John Orozco (180.200) and Jake Dalton (179.850).
Mikulak, 21, wasn't just the best Sunday -- he was a full 2.15 points better than anyone in the 36-man field that included his four fellow 2012 U.S. Olympic team members. "That just says that Sam is Sam," Orozco said, shaking his head. "He's such a gamer. He does it when the time is right."
Mikulak started the day in fourth place, 2.35 points back of Orozco, and executed to near perfection. He began on the parallel bars, his demise Thursday, and landed a 15.450 to climb into the top three alongside Orozco and Dalton.
The all-around duel came down to the final rotation with Mikulak, trailing Dalton by 1.05 points, moving to the vault, and Dalton to pommel horse, his weakest routine.
"I knew it was close," Mikulak said afterward, "but that's not going to change the gymnastics I do. I stayed focused on myself, made sure I got a good block and made sure I didn't fall on my butt."
In a moment that may as well have been scripted, Dalton stood at the ready beside the pommel horse awaiting his judges' salute as a few dozen yards in front of him Mikulak burst down the runway on his final vault, the same Kasamatsu 1½ he has done since high school.
"Sam can do that 11/2 in his sleep," Dalton said. "I knew I would have to be pretty perfect. I was going to really need something great, and even that might not be enough."
Mikulak's vault was pure, save a small hop on the whirling dismount.Yet unaware of Mikulak's vault score, Dalton mounted the pommel horse and muscled through his familiar shakes and wobbles. By the time Dalton spun into a handstand and began his dismount, he knew he had fallen out of the race. "It was intense for us," said Mikulak's coach Kurt Golder, "but I would imagine it was a heck of a show for the fans."
Mikulak anticipated Dalton's struggles on pommel horse and applauded him for staying upright. After all, Mikulak plummeted from the apparatus twice last year at the national championships.
"I never want someone to fall so I can win," Mikulak said. "If I'm going to beat someone, I want to beat them at their best."
Orozco, who saw his razor-thin lead vanish instantly Sunday as Dalton and Mikulak made an all-out dash to the finish line, was the field's final hope to dethrone the champ. Orozco climbed back into contention with a 16.0 on the horizontal bar, his penultimate routine, but his 15.0 on the floor routine was only enough for silver.
Despite the blunders Thursday, Mikulak believed a comeback could be in the cards.
"I guess I get over things pretty easily," he said, grinning. "It's a long competition. You can never count yourself out, because as soon as you start having negative thoughts you'll just beat yourself up."
Unlike the senior women's final Saturday that 17-year-old Simone Biles won in runaway fashion, this one went down to the wire. And that's probably to be expected; all five members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team returned for this competition, compared to only one returner in the women's field.
Day 1 concluded with the Olympians in first, second, third, fourth and 12th place in the all-around, prompting Jonathan Horton, the caboose, to joke, "Well, that makes me feel like a chump!"
Danell Leyva, the 2012 Olympian who started the final in third place, dropped to fifth with a 177.500, while Horton finished in eighth place at 175.250.
A welcome sign of depth in U.S. men's gymnastics is that six gymnasts took home individual event titles: Dalton on floor, Mikulak on pommel horse, Orozco on high bar, Donnell Whittenburg on vault and Brandon Wynn on rings.
"It always feels great to come out on top and know your hard work has paid off," Mikulak said. "But this is only a stepping stone toward the future. Team USA has such bigger goals."
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
First Published August 24, 2014 4:17 PM