Sam Mikulak felt his hands slip off the high bar and knew trouble was coming. A split second later, the best male gymnast in America found himself facedown on the mat. What better time for a little internal pep talk?
"I was like, 'Get in the game again. Don't mess up again,'" Mikulak said.
Done and done, if not exactly as crisply or as cleanly as Mikulak would have liked.
The 22-year-old easily won his third straight U.S. men's gymnastics title Sunday, overcoming his baffling miscue to secure a spot on the U.S. world-championships team. Mikulak posted a two-round score of 183.650, a whopping 4.35 points ahead of Baltimore's Donnell Whittenburg. A resurgent Chris Brooks was third, followed by Alex Naddour and Marvin Kimble in what amounted to the gymnastic equivalent of a three-touchdown blowout. Kyle Zemeir of Ellicott City finished 21st.
Mikulak gladly accepted the medals, just not the overall performance, after falling on two of 12 events during the two-day meet. Then again, he had plenty of company on the mat during a weekend in which every contender for a spot on the world-championships team looked vulnerable.
"Something was in the air tonight," Mikulak said.
The six-man group that heads to Glasgow, Scotland, in October will need steadier hands than the ones the Americans used in their final chance to plead their case to the world-championships selection committee. Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was fatigue. Maybe it was just one of those days.
Whatever it was, it wasn't close to what will be required if the United States wants to improve on the bronze medal it won last fall and make serious inroads on powers China and Japan.
"There were a lot of struggles today," said two-time Olympian Jon Horton, who slid to eighth after his own struggles on high bar. "Usually, everybody comes blasting out on Day 2."
Not this time, and the thin rod 9 feet off the ground had a lot to do with it. High bar is gymnastics' version of a slam-dunk contest, a chance to show off with a series of daredevil moves that can make the X Games seem tame. This time, the bar won.
Whittenburg (Edgewood) went splat in the first routine of the day. Mikulak, Horton, Danell Leyva and Paul Ruggeri soon followed.
"I wonder if I put a curse on the bar or something," Whittenburg said. "That's just how this sport is. You're going to have some struggles and you need to find a way to get through that."
Leyva's spill was flat-out weird. The 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist was swinging up over the bar when one hand released and the other did not, briefly hanging him up on top of the bar with nowhere to go. Leyva gingerly reset himself but was hit with a 0.3 deduction because it took him longer than 30 seconds to salute the judges and continue, the difference between a tie for fifth and a tie for sixth in the all-around.
The scariest moment, by far, belonged to Alec Yoder. Performing in his hometown, the 18-year-old gave himself an outside shot to make the world-championships team with an elegant pommel horse routine in the opening round Friday. He appeared on his way to doing it again when he lost momentum and strength during his dismount. His hands came off the horse, and Yoder's head hit the mat well before the rest of his body. The arena fell silent before Yoder managed to get up and walk away, though his 13.950 was nowhere close to his best.
"Honestly, I wish I knew what happened," Yoder said. "It's just one of those freak accidents you can't control."
While Mikulak is easily the top American — he cruised through his final five events — the group behind him is crowded. Whittenburg also locked up a world-championships spot, and his 16.1 on still rings would be good enough for the podium if he can duplicate it in Scotland. After that, national-team coordinator Kevin Mazeika can mix and match.
Brooks managed to avoid the mishaps on high bar and ended up throwing himself into conversation for the world-championships team in the process. The 28-year-old, an alternate on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, has spent most of the past three years battling a series of injuries. He was one of the few to escape high bar unscathed, his 15.750 good enough to win gold on the event and serve notice that he's not quite done yet.
"I looked up when Leyva fell, looked up when Paul fell, and I said, 'Just stay on the bar, don't do anything special, just stay on the bar,'" Brooks said.
It was enough to earn him the all-around bronze, yet his mere presence in the top group is proof the logjam behind Mikulak shows few signs of sorting itself out any time soon. Not that Mikulak is concerned.
"Everyone wants to have the meet of their life, but in the long scheme of things, it's not this competition that matters," Mikulak said. "It's a test event for world championships. We've got 10 weeks until worlds; whoever is going to be named on their specified event, it's going to be competitive."