PITTSBURGH (AP) â€” Sam Mikulak successfully defended his U.S. men’s gymnastics title Sunday, rallying past Jake Dalton in the final rotation to cap a dramatic comeback.
The three-time NCAA champion began the day in fourth place but surged past Dalton and former national champions John Orozco and Danell Leyva with six nearly flawless routines. Mikulak had a two-day total of 180.650, just ahead of the 180.200 by Orozco.
Jake Dalton was third, followed by Donnell Whittenburg and 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva.
The U.S. senior men’s program is preparing to send a veteran group to the world championships in China this fall. Mikulak will lead the way for the Americans, who are attempting to bounce back from a fifth-place team finish at the 2012 London Olympics.
The easygoing 21-year-old needed to work for his title after stumbling Friday night. His parallel bar set came undone because of a weird mixture of honey and chalk that messed up his grip. A botched tumbling pass on his floor exercise didn’t help matters. At one point, he was 24th in the field. Though he surged to fourth heading into Sunday, he was still 2.3 points behind the early lead set by Orozco.
Mikulak talked openly afterward about setting things right, but figured he would have to wait until the next meet.
Turns out, he didn’t even need to wait 48 hours.
He began Sunday on parallel bars and over the span of 45 crisp seconds put his nightmarish rout of Friday behind him. His 15.450 immediately moved him into third. He spent the next two hours slowly tracking down good friends Orozco and Dalton, who both allowed minor miscues to cost them the crown.
Dalton’s first mistake came on vault, where he stepped awkwardly to the side after landing and the resulting 14.700 was a half-point behind his score on opening night. Orozco’s vault was even worse. In an event that’s typically one of the highest scoring of the six disciplines, Orozco managed just a 13.500 when he failed to explode off the block. The low flight prevented him from getting through clean and the penalty ended his chance to reach the top of the podium for the first time since winning nationals a month before the 2012 Olympics.
While Orozco and Dalton faltered, Mikulak kept coming. He pumped his fists and flexed after a hit set on pommel horse, an event most American men struggle to master. That’s no longer a problem for Mikulak, whose two-day total of 30.600 on pommels was more than 1.5 points clear of the next highest finisher.
By the time Dalton, Orozco and Mikulak began the final rotation, Dalton’s lead was 1.05 points. He was forced to end on pommels, his weakest event. A dozen yards away Mikulak was ready to sprint down the vault runway. Mikulak drilled his first attempt while Dalton’s labored through pommels. That left only Orozco â€” not quite two years removed from a torn ligament in his left knee â€” between Mikulak and the top of the podium.
Orozco’s 15.000 wasn’t enough. Mikulak celebrated with his former University of Michigan teammates, though the real victor may have been the overall performance for a program eager to wash away the bitter taste left by London.