Mikulak takes gymnastics lead

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Sam Mikulak didn't even look at the scoreboard. Not once. Really, it was hardly necessary.

The two-time NCAA all-around champion knew he didn't need to peek at his total to figure out he was having a good night. It wasn't until after someone told him about his whopping 91.650 total in the preliminary round of the U.S. championships Friday night that the laid-back 20-year-old who oozes Southern California cool took a second to let his command performance sink in.

"Wow," Mikulak said, laughing. "I like that. Nice."

Spectacular might be a better word.

While the rest of the top Americans stumbled at least once, the University of Michigan star spent two hours serenely navigating his way around the floor at the XL Center. No falls. No drama. He even managed to put together an elegant pommel horse routine, no small feat considering the way it swallowed up his competitors.

Mikulak's 15.2 on his penultimate event propelled him to a stunning 2.950 lead over good friend Jake Dalton. It's the gymnastics equivalent of a football team taking a 35-3 lead at the half.

"He was killing it," Dalton said of Mikulak. "Every time I looked up, he was hitting a set."

Alex Naddour was third followed by Joshua Dixon and Steven Legendre.

Danell Leyva, the bronze medalist in the all-around at the 2012 London Olympics, struggled all night and slipped to sixth. Defending national champion John Orozco was eighth in his first competition back from major surgery on his left knee.

Leyva and Orozco were the unquestioned leaders of the U.S. Olympic team last summer, but Mikulak, who begins his senior year at Michigan next month, has sprinted by them both.

Mikulak dominated at the NCAA championships in April to bookend the all-around title he won as a freshman in 2011 then took a needed three-week break to recharge. His training program is divided into six-week cycles meant to have him peaking at just the right time.

At the moment, that happens to be whenever he walks out on the floor.

While Mikulak lacks the intensity of some of his peers, it hardly seems to be an issue From his spiky, just-so hair to the perpetual grin on his face, he is every bit the surfer.

Except, of course, when he's in the gym. Then, he soars.

Never one to brood, Mikulak's easygoing manner helps keep him above the fray. Good routines, bad routines. It doesn't really matter. He's just happy to be here. Really.

"He's in his own world," Dalton said.

And at the moment, he's on another level.

Not bad for a gymnast whose elite career was nearly derailed when he broke both of his ankles in a meet in Puerto Rico in 2011. He healed in time to work his way onto the Olympic team and has spent the last 12 months putting himself in position to be the American to beat over the next quadrennium.

His night began solidly but didn't turn spectacular until he reached the pommel horse on his fifth rotation. On an event where the U.S. men's team has looked at times like the Keystone Kops for nearly three decades, Mikulak glided over the apparatus, his legs whooshing back and forth with a grace typically reserved for more polished international performers.

When his score was posted, Mikulak joined Naddour -- a pommel horse specialist -- as the only athletes to top 14.5 on the event all night. In a sport where every tenth of a point is crucial, Mikulak's advantage is a chasm as he tries to nail down one of the six spots for the 2013 world championship team.

At this point, it figures to be a lock.

"This is the next step," Mikulak said. "My goal was to make the world team as an all-around. That's the goal I'm trying to accomplish."

Barring disaster, the rest of the field is playing for second in Sunday's finals. A coronation that would mark a definitive end to Leyva and Orozco's spot atop the U.S. men's program.

Orozco tore the ACL in his left knee during a post-Olympic tour last fall. He returned to compete in four events at a qualifying meet last month but Friday night marked his first all-around meet since London.

While his recovery is ahead of schedule, Orozco watered down his vault and retooled his floor exercise to take some of the stress of his legs.

His knee, however, wasn't the problem when a familiar nemesis reappeared. Orozco slid off the pommel horse in his first event, stirring unpleasant memories of the debacle in London when Orozco and Leyva's inability to stay on the horse in the team finals sent the U.S. men tumbling to a disappointing fifth-place finish.

A year later, work remains to be done.

"I tried to put everything out of my mind, but when I fell, it was like, `not again," Orozco said. "But I got through it and I was just happy to move on."

Leyva's post-Olympic workload has been steady but he lacked the flash on a night he needed to be on his game to keep up with Mikulak. Like Orozco, Leyva slipped off the pommel horse. Things didn't get any better on parallel bars, an event he won a world title in two years ago. He hopped off at one point and stumbled on his dismount.

"I don't even know where I am in the standings because I'm so (ticked) off," Leyva said. "Sunday will be different."

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