There’s one big question to be answered at this weekend’s Tokyo World Cup: can Sam Mikulak put it all together?
Despite his fifth place all-around finish at last October’s World Championships, the highest of eight-gymnast field at this world cup event, Mikulak isn’t necessarily favored to take the title at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza Sunday. With the competition in the 2020 Olympic host city, the Japanese approach Tokyo as an omen of things to come next summer. To that end they’ve tapped 22-year-old star Kenzo Shirai as their primary starter.
But the bigger picture involves Mikulak and what he is or isn’t capable of. After years of almosts, the talented 26-year-old finally broke through with an individual world medal -- bronze on high bar -- last fall. (He also participated in five individual finals, the most of anyone except world champion Artur Dalaloyan and bronze medalist Nikita Nagornyy of Russia.) The question isn’t whether he’s capable. It’s whether he can do it when it counts.
At last month’s American Cup, Mikulak came out roaring, beginning his competition with maybe the best floor routine of his entire career, then gave the competition away to U.S. no. 2 Yul Moldauer after errors on parallel bars and high bar. So Mikulak comes to Tokyo fighting not just against the rest of the field, but the reputation for inconsistency that precedes him.
Tokyo is more than Shirai vs. Mikulak -- 2012 Olympic alternate Nikita Ignatyev, 2014 Youth Olympic star Giarnni Regini-Moran, Japan’s Wataru Tanegawa, Korea’s Bae Ga-ram and veterans Bart Deurloo of the Netherlands and Nestor Abad of Spain are also jockeying for the podium. Here’s my prediction for the top five.
GOLD - Kenzo Shirai, Japan. No less a gymnast than Kohei Uchimura anointed Shirai his successor after the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and with good reason: Shirai has superhuman capabilities on floor and vault. But is he a true all-around gymnast? He’s comparatively weak on pommel horse and rings but compensates for it with those exceptionally high scores on vault and floor. Mistakes on either of his best events could open the door for someone else, but on the bouncy Japanese equipment, that seems unlikely.
SILVER - Sam Mikulak, USA. Gymnasts like to say that their biggest competition is themselves, and that seems especially true of Mikulak, who has been defeated by his own head at several prominent international events. He changed up his training and his mindset last year, and it looked for a while like it was paying off. But the American Cup loss grates, and leaves Mikulak something of an underdog for gold at this meet.
BRONZE - Wataru Tanigawa, Japan. Capable of brilliance on rings, parallel bars and vault but also somewhat inconsistent, this two-time world team member is nevertheless one of the heaviest hitters in this field. Competing at home should help rather than hurt him.
4. Nikita Ignatyev, Russia. The 2012 Olympic team alternate dropped off the radar for several years before reappearing at this year’s Russian Championships, where he won all-around bronze amidst a very talented field. He looked strong and prepared at the DTB Pokal Team Challenge just afterward, so the sky’s the limit for him here.
5. Bart Deurloo, Netherlands. The Dutch team’s top all-arounder has gotten better and better since the American Cup. With a strong finish on high bar, his best event, a top five finish is totally possible for him.