ANTWERP, Belgium (AP) — Sam Mikulak competed against his sporting hero at the gymnastics world championships on Monday and it was easy to see why he holds Kohei Uchimura in such awe.
The triple defending and reigning Olympic all-around champion from Japan produced his traditional show of elegance and power to sweep past early leader Mikulak, the U.S. champion, to top the standings in the all-around qualifying after three of the four sessions.
Boosted by high points in the high bar and floor exercise, Uchimura finished with 91.924 points, compared to 89.532 for Mikulak, a big margin. Lin Chaopan of China was in third place with 89.430. All three are as good as assured a place in Thursday's final with 24 going through, and Uchimura and Mikulak will almost certainly be in the top-six group battling it out alongside each other for medals. Gymnasts start from scratch again for the final.
So far, it doesn't look like Mikulak is quite ready to surpass Uchimura just yet. Even though the 20-year-old Mikulak has plenty of flamboyant flair to set him apart and thrill the crowds, Uchimura performs with such an aura of serenity that every flawless move seems inevitable. If he maintains this form, the gold medal will be just as inevitable.
"I will always look up to him, winning worlds three years in a row, and Olympic Games," Mikulak gushed. "I mean, no other gymnast has done that. He is definitely my hero but he is also something that I am thriving to reach," Mikulak said.
The fact that the greatest hope in men's gymnastics for the United States should look up to someone only four years his senior shows just what Uchimura already has achieved in the sport. Though Uchimura holds the men's record for all-around world titles, he still shares it with retired women's gymnast Svetlana Khorkina of Russia. Breaking through for a fourth all-around gold would give even more credence to all the talk that he is the greatest ever.
And Mikulak wants to be right there when it happens, even though he acknowledges his chances of preventing Uchimura from getting gold are slim. "I just want to see how close to him I can get," the easy-going Mikulak said.
Points are awarded both on difficulty and execution, and even if two athletes look as good as each other to the uninitiated, the grade of difficulty can make all the difference. It is another division where Uchimura excels.
"He has a lot higher start values than me. So if he goes out and hits it, I am not going to be hurt if I don't win," Mikulak said. "I am going to do my routines regardless." Even though he already carries the weight of a nation looking for the next Paul Hamm, the only American man to win a world (2003) or Olympic (2004) all-around title, Mikulak won't be criticized for losing to Uchimura just yet.
Then again, he has been on a roll, unbeaten in all-around competition so far this year. In the U.S., he won the Big Ten and NCAA title this spring then backed it up by overwhelming his competition at the national championships.
Quite a streak. "I don't think of it too much but it is definitely a nice background I have," Mikulak said. Still, he came into Antwerp as a world championship rookie but never felt the nerves. He was drawn in the morning subdivision, forcing him to be up at 6.30 a.m. local time. Eggs, bacon, chocolate croissants — and still he felt good.
"I found myself nodding off here and there. I hope a get a little more sleep next time," he said.