SAN JOSE (CBS / AP) — Sam Mikulak walked down the hall after arguably the biggest day of his life, oblivious.
It wasn’t until Jonathan Horton told the laid-back 19-year-old from Southern California that he posted the highest score on the opening day of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials that what he’d done started to sink in.
“What?” Mikulak said. “Seriously?”
Mikulak solidified his spot on the five-man Olympic team with a score of 91.80 on Thursday, just ahead of Danell Leyva at 91.70 and national champion John Orozco, and well in front of the rest of the field on a day the U.S. once again showcased its depth heading to London.
Orozco and Leyva remain in perfect position to earn an automatic spot on the team, which is reserved for the top two all-around finishers provided they also rank among the top three in at least three of the six disciplines. At the moment, Orozco and Leyva both fill that criteria, with Mikulak quickly closing in.
“Kid’s a gamer,” Horton said. “He just knows how to perform. That’s all there is to it. He just knows how to go out there and do his job.”
Mikulak attributed his performance to “beginner’s luck” though he’s hardly a newbie. The 2011 NCAA champion during his freshman season at Michigan was on his way to earning a spot on last year’s world championship team when he broke both of his legs during a meet in Puerto Rico. Doctors initially told him he’d merely sprained his ankles, and Mikulak finished the rest of his rotations in excruciating pain.
Leyva’s mother, Maria Gonzalez, saw Mikulak go down then watched in exasperation as he gamely kept going.
“When Sam broke both his feet, she said, ‘This guy was in a wheelchair the whole meet and he did pommel horse, p-bars, and high bar,”’ said Yin Alvarez, Leyva’s coach and Gonzalez’s husband. “He’s landing on two broken ankles! You tell me this guy is not ready for this? Who does this? I want him on my team.”
Leyva moved past Orozco and into first place in the overall standings, which combine scores from nationals and trials. But he couldn’t top Mikulak, at least for a couple of hours. Mikulak remained third in the overall standings but drew closer to the top two heading into Saturday’s finals.
The U.S. men have been talking for months about how deep they are and, for once, it doesn’t appear to be lip service.
Leyva posted the top score during the first day of the national championships three weeks ago. Orozco did it in the finals two days later to steal the national title from Leyva’s grasp. Mikulak broke the stranglehold the duo have on the top American spot with two hours of superb gymnastics.
“There’s no shoo-ins at all,” Mikulak said. “So much can happen in one day. This is such a deep team and everybody is so good. This is such a deep USA team … but if I keep hitting routines and they see that I’m consistent and reliable, I think that’s a good quality.”
Though Mikulak lack’s Leyva’s daring and Orozco’s intensity, he makes up for it with a polish of a guy who has been there, done that and has the medals to prove it.
“I was just able to zone everything out, breathe and keep control over all my skills,” Mikulak said.
He was one of the few on a day the stakes appeared to get the best of more seasoned competitors.
The dynamic Leyva was perhaps a little too amped up. Leading off on floor, he zipped through a sloppy set that included a step out of bounds, moving so quickly it appeared he’d chugged a fistful of Red Bulls during warmups.
Orozco, dubbed the “Silent Ninja” because of the way he sneaks up on the competition, stumbled a bit on pommel horse, stalling just before his dismount. Two events later he took a step back, literally on vault. He failed to get the proper height off the table and crouched while landing. His rear never hit the floor, but his hands did and the 14.8 he received blunted his momentum.
“The only thing I would like to do is my best and show the committee I’m ready and ready to compete and represent the USA,” Orozco said. “I think I didn’t show enough of that tonight.”
It was all the opening Leyva needed despite a somewhat ho-hum afternoon that lacked the “wow” factor that’s made him perhaps the most charismatic gymnast of his generation.
“I always say this, there’s no perfect meet,” Alvarez said.
“Tell me what gymnast had a perfect meet?”
Mikulak’s emergence solidifies the top three, and the final two spots also appear to be taking shape as Jake Dalton and Horton, a two-time Olympic medalist, moved closer to making the team.
Chris Brooks began the day in the mix only to see his chances unravel during a 20-minute stretch. He over-rotated his vault and stumbled forward while trying to stick the landing. His attempt to bounce back on the parallel bars in his next event went awry quickly. He was only seconds into his routine when he sailed off the bar and into the realm of also-ran, posting a miserable 13.950.
The affable 25-year-old gritted his teeth after finally landing his dismount, then ducked behind a curtain and let out his frustrations in a nearby hallway. He heads to the final day of competition down but not despondent.
“You’ve got to put it behind you,” Brooks said. “It was a tough day. But really, I have nothing to lose.”
The other spot is Horton’s to lose, but even the 2008 silver medalist on the high bar endured a rare miscue on his signature event. His grips appeared to slip off the bar on his first release move, sending him tumbling to the mat.
The only Olympian still in the field is sure to get the benefit of the doubt by the selection committee after flying off the bar for the first time in competition since the 2011 national championships.
“I let go and thought ‘man, I’m in perfect position, I’ve got this,”’ Horton said. “The bar was wet and then I was on the ground like ‘What the heck?”’
There were no fits of exasperation for Mikulak, whose injury woes of last summer are well behind him.
“They’ve now seen him hit 18 for 18,” coach Kurt Golder said.
“I think he’s becoming more secure.”
Even if he doesn’t know it.
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