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August 17, 2013

Mikulak in front of former Sooners at U.S. title meet

HARTFORD, Conn. — Sam Mikulak sprinted to the lead at the U.S. men’s gymnastics championships Friday night, riding a sublime routine on pommel horse to close in on his first national title.

Mikulak, a two-time NCAA all-around champion, had a score of 91.650. Jake Dalton was second, nearly three points behind. 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 just finished his junior year at Michigan, has surpassed them both.

Mikulak dominated at the NCAA championships in April and the gap between himself and the rest of the top American men has only grown this summer.

The 20-year-old from southern California lacks the intensity of some of his peers. 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.

Mikulak’s 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 stumbled for nearly three decades, Mikulak glided over the apparatus, his legs whooshing back and forth with an elegance typically reserved for more polished international performers.

When his 15.2 score was posted, he joined Naddour — a pommel horse specialist — as the only athletes to top 14.5 on the event all night. It was all he needed to turn his lead into a chasm. In a sport where every tenth of a point is crucial, Mikulak’s 2.950 advantage over good friend Dalton is the gymnastic equivalent of a football team taking a 35-3 halftime lead.

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