Sam Mikulak felt his hands slip off the high bar and knew trouble was coming. A split second later the best male gymnast in America found himself face down on the mat. What better time for a little internal pep talk?
"I was like, `Get in the game again. Don’t mess up again,’" Mikulak said.
Done and done, if not exactly as crisply or as cleanly as Mikulak would like.
The 22-year-old easily won his third straight U.S. gymnastics title Sunday, overcoming his baffling miscue to secure a spot on the U.S’s world championship team. Mikulak posted a two-round score of 183.650, a whopping 4.35 points ahead of Donnell Whittenburg. A resurgent Chris Brooks was third followed by Alex Naddour and Marvin Kimble in what amounted to the gymnastic equivalent of a three-touchdown blowout.
Mikulak gladly accepted the medals, just not the overall performance after falling on two of 12 events during the two-day meet. Then again he had plenty of company on the mat during a weekend in which the world championship team looked vulnerable.
"Something was in the air tonight," Mikulak said.
The U.S. hope whatever it was evaporates sometime in the next two months. Whittenburg, Naddour, 2012 Olympic bronze all-around medalist Danell Leyva, Paul Ruggeri and Brandon Wynn were named to the world team Sunday night, with Brooks as the replacement athlete and Kimble as the alternate.
That group hopes to head across the Atlantic with steadier hands than the ones they used in their final showcase before the biggest meet of the year.
Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was fatigue. Maybe it was just one of those days. Whatever the explanation, it wasn’t close to what will be required if the U.S. wants to improve on the bronze medal it won last fall and make serious inroads on powers China and Japan.
"There were a lot of struggles today," said two-time Olympian Jon Horton, who slid to eighth after his own issues on high bar and missed the world team. "Usually, everybody comes blasting out on Day 2."
Not this time, and the thin rod 9 feet off the ground had a lot to do with it. High bar is the gymnastics’ version of a slam-dunk contest, a chance to show off with a series of daredevil moves that can make the X Games seem tame. This time, they fought the bar and the bar won.
Whittenburg went splat in the first routine of the day. Mikulak, Horton, Leyva and Ruggeri soon followed.
"I wonder if I put a curse on the bar or something," Whittenburg said. "That’s just how this sport is. You’re going to have some struggles and you need to find a way to get through that."
Leyva’s spill was flat-out weird. He was swinging up over the bar when one hand released and the other did not, briefly hanging him up on top of the bar with nowhere to go. Leyva gingerly reset himself but was hit with a .3 deduction because it took him longer than 30 seconds to salute the judges and continue, the difference between a tie for fifth and a tie for sixth in the all-around.
The scariest moment by far belonged to Alec Yoder. Performing in front of his hometown, the 18-year-old gave himself an outside shot to make the world team with an elegant pommel horse routine in the opening round on Friday. He appeared to be in the process of doing it again when he lost momentum and strength during his dismount. His hands came off the horse and Yoder’s head hit the mat well before the rest of his body. The arena fell silent before Yoder managed to get up and walk away, though his 13.950 was nowhere close to his best.
"Honestly, I wish I knew what happened," Yoder said. "It’s just one of those freak accidents you can’t control."
While Mikulak is easily the top American — he cruised through his final five events to rob the proceedings of any actual drama — the group behind him is crowded, which might not be a bad thing.
"We know any one of us can go out and hit," Mikulak said.
Brooks managed to avoid the mishaps on high bar and ended up reviving his career. The 28-year-old, an alternate on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, has spent most of the last three years battling a series of injuries. He was one of the few to escape high bar unscathed, his 15.750 good enough to win gold on the event and serve notice he’s not quite done yet.
"I looked up when Leyva fell, looked up when Paul fell and I said `Just stay on the bar, don’t do anything special, just stay on the bar,’" Brooks said.
It was enough to earn him the all-around bronze, yet his mere presence in the top group is proof the logjam behind Mikulak shows few signs of sorting itself out anytime soon. Not that Mikulak is concerned.
"Everyone wants to have the meet of their life but in the long scheme of things it’s not this competition that matters," Mikulak said. "It’s a test event for world championships. We’ve got 10 weeks until worlds, whoever is going to be named on their specified event, it’s going to be competitive."