If Sam Mikulak is to defend his title at the P&G Gymnastics Championships, he will need a mad comeback in the final Sunday to overcome 2012 national champion John Orozco.
Mikulak's hopes for consecutive titles were dealt an immediate and potentially crippling blow when he opened the senior men's competition Friday night at Consol Energy Center with a 13.550 score for a shaky parallel-bar routine and a stumble on the dismount.
"I just didn't have a good enough grip," Mikulak explained. "My mixture of honey and chalk wasn't up to my usual standards."
Mikulak rallied to score an all-around 88.400, enough for fourth after Day 1, but the early blunder was enough to turn the champ from the chased to the chaser in a field of 33 competitors that includes all five members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
The top four is a familiar group, too, as Orozco (90.750), Jake Dalton (90.250), Danell Leyva (88.900) and Mikulak were teammates in London.
"Well, that makes me feel like a chump," joked Jonathan Horton, the fifth Olympic team member, who finished 12th.
Orozco, Mikulak's 2012 Olympic teammate, turned in a monster 15.600 and 15.750 on the parallel bars and horizontal bar, his second and third rotations, to plant him firmly in the driver's seat for his second national title.
"I was still kind of [nervous] before some events, even though I know I can do this," Orozco said. "I know I'm physically ready, and, after the routine, I was thinking, why am I so nervous? Well, it's gymnastics, and there's a lot riding on this competition."
Orozco had plenty of nerves as he approached the pommel horse for his final routine of the night, and he was a little huffy afterward when he discovered the video board had shown a replay of his pommel horse routine from the 2012 Olympics, a tumble and 12.732 score that sunk the medal dreams for the U.S. team.
Thankfully, Orozco didn't see or hear about the clip until Leyva alerted him after the pommel horse dismount, a 14.500 score.
"I'm really glad I didn't see that before I went up there," Orozco said.
Leyva, seated beside him, grinned and added, "I'm really glad you didn't see it, too."
With no room for another slip after the parallel bars, Mikulak answered with a dynamite 15.550 on the horizontal bar to climb back from 24th place to ninth. He sat on the second pass of his floor routine, taking a 14.550, but muscled through the final two rotations to stay within striking distance of the leaders.
"I was surprised I still ended up in fourth," Mikulak said. "I thought it was a rougher day than what a fourth-place finish should be."
Horton had early success and finished with a 12th-place 83.600 in his first return to competition after a pair of shoulder surgeries forced him away from the mat for more than two years. Horton, 28, started with a 15.300 on parallel bars, enough to put him in third place after the first rotation.
Horton, fueled by the pipe dream of a third Olympic invitation, beamed as he trotted off the platform, getting hugs and high-fives from every competitor and coach in the zip code.
"That felt awesome," Horton said. "I was nervous all day. To be able to jump up there and do a really good p-bar routine, it felt so good to be back. I've been looking forward to this moment for a really long time."
Horton landed a solid 14.400 on the horizontal bar, but shortly after his dismount he turned to coach Tom Meadows and admitted, "I was completely gassed out." And it showed.
Horton stepped out twice on his floor routine and took a 14.200, then jumbled those numbers with a 12.400 on pommel horse, putting his all-around contention in jeopardy.
All odds considered, he added, "I'm not at all upset with how I did today."
The P&G Gymnastics Championships continue today with the junior women's final at 2 p.m. and the senior final at 7:30 p.m.
Douglas ready to return
It’s back to work for 2012 Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas. Douglas, who hasn’t competed since London, detailed her plans to return for the 2015 Secret Classic to begin her push toward Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Douglas had hoped to compete in Pittsburgh, but that plan was foiled when she left her longtime coach, Liang Chow, in July. Douglas has since relocated to Columbus, Ohio, with her grandmother to train at Buckeye Gymnastics.
"I love being here, but being a spectator is hard,” Douglas said. “It's bittersweet. I like it but I don't, because I want to be out there." With two Olympic gold medals to her name, the 18-year-old simply hopes to add “more hardware” to her already overflowing trophy case.
“Going all out for more gold medals,” Douglas said, “that’s the goal.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.