August 14, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Sam Mikulak won't have a seat in the room when the U.S. men's gymnastics brain trust gets together Sunday night to figure out who to send to the world championships in Scotland this fall.

The two-time national champion is just fine with that.

While Mikulak's passport is safe to be stamped as he closes in on a third straight national title, the other five guys who will join him across the Atlantic in late October is anybody's guess.

''They have a very tough decision ahead of them,'' Mikulak said.

Well, save for one spot. Mikulak left little doubt about his position at the front of the line, posting a score of 92.000 during the opening round of the U.S. Championships on Friday night as he closes in on a third straight national crown.

The 22-year-old can be a slow starter at times and needed a massive comeback in the finals a year ago to edge John Orozco. This time Mikulak enters the last six rotations with a commanding 2.35-point lead over Donnell Whittenburg. He began the night with a smooth 15.1 on pommel horse and took off from there. His 16.250 on parallel bars marked the highest score in meet history under the new scoring system. The number was so big even the normally laid-back kid from Southern California couldn't help but perk up.

''If I were to do that routine in the Olympics or the world championships, I'd be very pleased,'' Mikulak said.

Seeking to become the first male since Paul Hamm in 2002-04 to win three consecutive national titles, Mikulak was sublime at times. He's one of the few Americans who can handle his business on pommel horse - a longtime program-wide bugaboo that is in the process of slowly being fixed - and when Mikulak began the night with 45 smooth seconds, it gave him all the boost he needed to take off. He powered through vault, then followed with a sublime set on parallel bars. Elegantly swooping from one end to the other, Mikulak was nearly flawless, at one point launching himself forward a good 6 feet and giving the appearance he was flying.

Call it the byproduct of a renewed emphasis on style since moving from Michigan to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in May.

''It's showing a level of professionalism,'' Mikulak said. ''I'm not just doing the skills, I'm showing off the skills, too. That's kind of the look you want to get and you want to make it look easy.''

As easy as say, choosing Mikulak as part of the six-man group that will try to back up the team bronze the U.S. won at world's last year. After that, it's tricky. Whittenburg and Paul Ruggeri led a crowded group behind Mikulak. The eight gymnasts who finished behind Mikulak were separated by 2.7 points.

''It's quite a puzzle you're trying to put together,'' said U.S. men's national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika.

One with some familiar faces. Two-time national champion Jonathan Horton heads into Sunday in fourth, while 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Danell Leyva is fifth. Jake Dalton, a fixture on the national team since 2009, is sitting out the meet with a minor shoulder injury, but will be in the mix.

Mikulak smartly pointed to good friend Whittenburg as his biggest threat entering the weekend. The rapidly maturing 20-year-old with shoulders that would make an NFL linebacker envious is still more powerful than polished. He had issues on pommels, but recovered with a 15.900 on rings, silently whipping himself up and over again and again while easily posting the highest mark on an event that has belonged to U.S. national teammate Brandon Wynn for years.

Ruggeri put together a quiet 88.350 to stay just in front of Horton, who doesn't do anything quietly. He sailed off the podium after his vault, nearly taking out a judge in the process. The 29-year-old Horton, however, recovered with a pair of emotionally charged routines on parallel bars and high bars. He pumped his fists after drilling his dismount on the high bar, hugging coach Tom Meadows in the process as he mounts one final comeback from a series of injuries that have plagued him since the 2012 Summer Games.

''I kind of got a chip on my shoulder and a lot to prove,'' Horton said. ''I need to do six good routines on Sunday. Hopefully they can look and go `Jon Horton can help us on the world stage.'''

For a brief moment it appeared Leyva had recaptured the form that helped him finish third in the all-around in London. He was in front after two events after a stunning 16.000 on high bar, but slipped badly on floor exercise to blunt some of his momentum going into a pressure-packed finals.

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Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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