Sam Mikulak

2019 World Cup preview - Men

Sam Mikulak of the USA.

Sam Mikulak of the USA.

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.

For Moldauer, a third American Cup, taken with charm

A precise Yul Moldauer captured his third straight American Cup Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina, becoming the first gymnast since Blaine Wilson twenty years ago to three-peat at the most prestigious international competition held in the U.S. each year.

Moldauer took advantage of a flare up of inconsistency by five-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak to lock down victory at the American Cup by a thrilling 0.001 margin. But while Moldauer walked off the winner, he spent much of the day chasing two-time Olympian Mikulak, the gymnast who really controlled the meet from start to finish.

The early rounds certainly belonged to Mikulak, who jumped out to a healthy lead after one of the best floor routines of his career, sticking every tumbling pass cold. The 26-year-old followed with excellence on pommel horse (superb Busnari) and rings (stuck double double tuck dismount) before flagging in the latter half of the competition. A small hop to the side on his Kasamatsu 1.5 twist vault was no big deal, but a blown Bhavsar on parallel bars that left him sitting on the rails ever so briefly one routine later was a more serious fault.

Mikulak’s mistakes opened the door for Moldauer, who gathered momentum as he moved from one event to the next. Unable to match Mikulak’s difficulty on pommel horse or high bar, the energetic 22-year-old made up for it with stellar execution on every apparatus. His stuck Kasamatsu 1.5 twist vault was the turning point in the competition, and he took the lead after a brilliant parallel bars routine capped by a stuck double front half out dismount and one of his more enthusiastic shows of delight at hitting his routines, involving a trademark signoff involving yelling, fist pumps and a salute.

Despite Moldauer’s best efforts, Mikulak had a good chance to reclaim the lead on high bar, his best apparatus and Moldauer’s worst. So it was Mikulak who gave the game away when he was unable to complete a Tak half on high bar after catching Cassina and Kolman release skills that gave the game away. Truly in control of his fate for the first time all day after Mikulak’s error, Moldauer put his foot on the gas, turning in the best high bar routine he’s capable of and taking a calculated risk in throwing a triple twisting double layout dismount. It paid off.

“Mentally I felt like I was in all the right places,” said Mikulak, who posted top five finishes with the U.S. team, in the all-around and on pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar at the 2018 World Championships in Doha. “There are just a couple of things we need to refine over the next couple months. A couple more numbers and I’ll be right there.”

“It was fun,” added the humble Moldauer, who is always quick to praise Mikulak’s leadership qualities. “We said we were going to make it an exciting meet, and I thought it was a great meet.”

The anticipated Moldauer/Mikulak matchup might have been interrupted by Kenzo Shirai, the only competitor in the field capable of challenging the Americans in terms of difficulty score, had Shirai not sustained an ankle injury minutes before the competition began and withdrew. In lieu of a real challenge from European all-around bronze medalist James Hall of Great Britain (fifth) or Olympians Petro Pakhnuik of Ukraine (fourth), Christian Baumann of Switzerland or Bart Deurloo of the Netherlands (sixth and seventh), 2014 Youth Olympic silver medalist Ma Yue of China emerged as the bronze medalist. Ma, who was little-known before this meet, who took full advantage of his first world cup all-around stage to nab a podium finish.

Before the day was out, Ma, seemed to have embraced the fuel-injected, NCAA-style approach to serious international competition espoused by Mikulak and Moldauer dubbed the “University of America” by commentators. As the competition went on, Ma celebrated his own successful routines and stuck landings with an enthusiasm that grew less bridled with every event.

Quick hits: 2019 American Cup

Rotation 1:

Sam Mikulak, floor: Running front double pike. 2.5 to double front, clicks heels together, stuck. Front double full to front tuck full. Flairs sequence, great.1.5 to front layout full. Triple twist, stuck. Tim Daggett going nuts. SAM going nuts! Wonderful routine. Wonderful. 14.733.

Bart Deurloo (NED), floor: Double front and slides off the floor. 1.5 to front double full. 2.5 to stop to punch front full. 2.5 to front layout half. Arabian double front with a small hop. 12.766.

Ma Yue (CHN), floor: Double front tuck half out, small hop. Front double full to front full, hop and OOB. Randi. Russians. Double full. Triple full with a hop back. More charisma than he’s displayed in previous years, honestly. 13.3.

Petro Pakhniuk (UKR), floor: Double double tuck, hop back. (He’s capable of a 2.5.) Randi, low landing. The feed cut out for the rest of it, but Petro looks pleased with this effort. 14.133.

James Hall (GBR), floor: Handspring front double pike. Double double tuck with a big step back. Front double full to front layout half. Randi, a little low. 2.5 to Rudi with another step. Oh, and almost collapses his wide arm handstand! Triple full with another big step sideways. 13.466.

Christian Baumann (SUI), floor: Randi with a step back, undercooked. 2.5 to front layout. Arabian double front. Double full side pass. Flairs and Fedorchenkos, a little slow. Not enough gas to make the triple full at the end, hands down. 12.466.

Yul Moldauer (USA), floor: Randi, great, small hop. 3.5 to front layout half, a little offline. 2.5 to front layout full. Arabian double front half out to screams of approval from the crowd. Flairs, so quick and pretty! Double full side pass. Triple full, hop forward. And his particular enthusiastic signoff with fist-pumping, etc. 14.5.

Rotation 2:

Bart Deurloo (NED), pommel: Russians between the pommels, looking good! But falls midway through. Pacing around taking his whole 30 seconds to catch his breath. The rest was fine. 12.166.

Ma Yue (CHN), pommel: Hits a nice routine and stands shouting in victory on the podium for at least 10 seconds afterwards. Pakniuk is up there ready to take over and Ma Yue is still shouting. Like Mikulak, he’s REALLY happy about this one. 14.033.

Petro Pakhniuk (UKR), pommel: Two scissor to handstand, circles on one pommel, well done overall. Great lines for this event but does the dismount of a child, not even going for the handstand. 13.433.

James Hall (GBR), pommel: Scissor to handstand, one pommel work, Russian on one pommel, Russian travels, nice. Not the prettiest pommel worker perhaps, but terrific pirouetting dismount. Good on him! 14.2.

Christian Baumann (SUI), pommel horse: Scissor to handstand (what a popular mount!), travels, Busnari where he comes down between the pommels, legs way apart all the way through his Russians but wow, stays on. A Swiss miracle! Handstand dismount, no pirouettes. 12.933.

Yul Moldauer (USA), pommels: original scissor mount, flairs, Magyar. Very crowd-pleasing! Terrific lightness to this routine. Slightly tired on the dismount, but not bad at all. 13.8.

Sam Mikulak (USA), pommels: His own element, beautiful Busnari! Gave him problems at Worlds but none here. Ooh clips the horse but gets it back together. The rest is solid. Good for him! 14.433.

Rotation 3:

James Hall (GBR), rings: Pull to Maltese. Tim Daggett doesn't like it. Frankly, he's right -- low positions, even the iron cross. Yamawakis. Second cross, high. Giant. Double double tuck, step back. 13.666.

Christian Baumann (SUI), rings: He has more natural upper body strength than Hall. Yamawakis to straddle planche. Double double with a small hop to the side. He seems to be warming up as he goes on today. 13.633.

Yul Moldauer (USA), rings: With Sam Mikulak cheering him on, Yul blazes through a beautiful routine and opening his hands Petrounias-like on his strength moves. Stuck double double tuck. Melted into the floor indeed. 14.2.

Sam Mikulak (USA), rings: Rings face on. Cheeky smileo the judges. Maltese. Cross. Tucked Yamawaki to cross, low. Different kind of face now. Piked Yamawaki. Giant. Double double tuck, stuck. And finally, a happy smile. 14.1.

Rotation 4:

Petro Pakhniuk (UKR), vault: Tsuk 2.5, lands low and in a deep squat but saves it with a step to the side. All distance, no height. 13.833.

Yul Moldauer (USA), vault: Tsuk 2.5, STUCK. BAM. 14.733.

Sam Mikulak (USA), vault: Tries to emulate what Moldauer did right before him. Almost -- hops to the side. "I wanted to stick like you," he tells Yul as he walks back. 14.433.

Rotation 5:

Yul Moldauer (USA), p-bars: Peach, peach half, DIamaova, full spin on one arm, giant, Geinger with straight legs (!). Double front half out, stuck like a cat. And then lots of motion, with arm waving and celebrating and a military kind of salute. 14.966.

Sam Mikulak (USA), p-bars: Front flip. Inside Diamadov. Peach half. Peach. Front somie. Belle and nearly loses it! Oh dear. That's going to be a problem. Double front half out, stuck. He's eaten into his lead there. Hmm. 14.066.

Ma Yue (CHN), p-bars: Front flip. Peach, shy of handstand. Double tuck. Front straddle somie. Bhavsar. Belle. Inside Diamadov. Double pike, stuck. And a celebration of his own! He looks thrilled. University of China? 14.333.

Rotation 6:

Christian Baumann (SUI): Is getting some flak from the commentators for looking a bit too "relaxed" in his form, but a nice routine from him overall. Double double layout. 13.833.

Petro Pakhnuik (UKR), high bar: German giant out of handstand, oops. Tkatchev, Tkatchev half. Tak half. Stuck full twisting double layout. 13.733.

Ma Yue (CHN), high bar: Piked Tkatchev. Tkatchev. Tkatchev half. All the Tkatchevs. Hop full. Stuck double double layout! 13.9.

Sam Mikulak (USA), high bar: Cassina. Kolman, very nice. Layout Tkatchev. Tkatchev to Tkatchev half. And gives it away on the Tak half, doesn't complete it, swings the other way. Oh Sam oh Sam oh Sam...and then he sticks the double double layout. 14.066.

Yul Moldauer (USA), high bar: Yama. One armed giant. Tak full, nice. Tak half (angle). Tucked Kovacs. Hop full. Hop 1.5. Triple double layout, small hop on the landing, but yeah! Another huge celebration on the podium from Yul (and the girls in the crowd love it). 3-peat? It’s happening. 13.733 is only the fifth highest score on high bar, but no matter.

Results:

1 - Yul Moldauer, USA, 85.932
2 - Sam Mikulak, USA, 85.931
3 - Ma Yue. China, 84.465
4 - Petro Pakhnuik, UKR, 82.864
5 - James Hall, GBR, 82.698
6 - Christian Baumann, SUI, 81.631
7 - Bart Deurloo, NED, 76.932

American Cup 2019: Men's competition breakdown

Sam Mikulak will try to spoil Yul Moldauer’s potential three-peat at the American Cup Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Sam Mikulak will try to spoil Yul Moldauer’s potential three-peat at the American Cup Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Occasionally an Oleg Verniaiev or a Ryohei Kato or a Fabian Hambuechen pops in to take the crown, but for the better part of 20 years, the American Cup has been dominated by American men.

Will history repeat itself this year? Maybe not. Bolstered by out-of-this-world difficulty on floor, 2017 World all-around bronze medalist Kenzo Shirai of Japan, along with 2018 American Cup runner up James Hall, a silent assassin from Great Britain, pose a viable threat to Sam Mikulak and Yul Moldauer for this year’s American Cup title.

Make no mistake, the American men are strong. With two Olympics under his belt and several top five finishes at last fall’s Doha World Championships, Mikulak proved he’s just entering his zenith, and he competes especially well inside the country. That being said, the 26-year-old flashed a fair amount of his old inconsistency at Winter Cup two weeks ago in finishing second to Moldauer, who coasted to the title.

Moldauer comes in as the two-time defending American Cup champ and the first guy to potentially three-peat it since Blaine Wilson did it from 1997-99. Moldauer is a deeply talented competitor who doesn’t wilt in the spotlight, but he trails Mikulak in difficulty on pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar.

At last year’s world championships, Moldauer’s total difficulty score was in the low 32s, and he remains competitive because his execution is way above average when he’s on his game. Mikulak, meanwhile, was up around 35 for combined difficulty. Shirai, who nonetheless finished seventh below Mikulak’s fifth, carries around a whopping 35.9, the highest potential difficulty in this year’s American Cup field, and about seven points of that comes from floor alone. Hall carries in a respectable 34.5, priming him to play spoiler.

Ukraine’s Petro Pakhniuk, the Netherlands’s Bart Deurloo, China’s 2014 Youth Olympian Ma Yue and Switzerland’s Christian Baumann will all also be jostling for place. (Marcel Nguyen, originally scheduled to be there for Germany, dropped out a couple days ago.)

Shirai’s incredible difficulty on floor and vault ups his stock as an all-arounder, but execution-wise, the charismatic 22-year-old is weaker than average on rings and pommel horse. Pakhnuik, meanwhile is exceptionally good on pommel horse and parallel bars, and showed it in his bronze medal finish at last year’s cup. Ma is something of a question mark, though he does have a world cup title on rings under his belt.

Bottom line: if Mikulak does what he’s capable of, he’ll win his second American Cup title. But if he does something to take himself out of contention, the title is likely to be a fight between Moldauer, Shirai and Hall.