(L-R) Silver medalist Danell Leyva, gold medalist John Orozco and bronze medalist Sam Mikulak acknowledge the crowd after receiving their medals on Day Three of the Visa Championships.
That was the sound Sam Mikulak heard when he landed short on a floor routine tumbling pass last summer in Puerto Rico.
Thinking that he had just suffered a simple bruise, Mikulak taped his ankles and continued. An X-ray taken the next day revealed the true diagnosis:
Fractures in both ankles.
“Going into Visa Championships a few weeks after that, that was the first thing going through my head: I won't be able to make senior team, I won't be able to have a shot for world team, this will probably set me back for Olympics down the road,” Mikulak remembered.
And sure enough, the Newport Coast, Calif., native missed the 2011 Visa Championships and could not make the world championships team.
His path to the Olympic Games, however, has — thus far — not been thwarted. In fact, he could realize his Olympic dream this weekend at the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose, Calif.
In the year after Mikulak’s freak injury, the 19-year-old earned the 2012 NCAA all-around silver medal for Michigan and finished third in his first senior U.S. championships. That placement puts him in good position to make the five-member U.S. Olympic Team that will compete in London.
“I’m feeling pretty confident in my shot (at making the Olympic Team),” Mikulak said.
Making the 2012 Olympic Team is still no guarantee. After the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, the International Gymnastics Federation reduced the Olympic teams from six gymnasts to five for the London Games.
Fifteen men are in San Jose to compete for those positions. USA Gymnastics will name two Olympic Team members immediately following Saturday’s competition. A selection committee will determine the final three within the next 24 hours.
The past three U.S. all-around champions — Jonathan Horton (2009 and 2010), Danell Leyva (2011) and John Orozco (2012) — are considered pretty safe bets to make the Olympic team.
The situation after that gets a bit more muddled. If the selection committee is looking for another strong all-arounder, Mikulak should be the leading contender if he can put together a similarly strong performance this weekend.
“He really doesn’t have a weakness,” Horton, the only 2008 Olympian competing at Trials, said. “I know his weakest event is rings, but he gets through that and he’s phenomenal everywhere.”
With three world-class all-arounders in Horton, Leyva and Orozco, however, the team could opt for event specialists. In particular, a pommel horse specialist could help fortify the United States’ perpetual weakest event.
“All I can do is go to Trials and make it as hard for people not to put me on the team as possible,” Mikulak said.
If one thing is for certain, it’s that Mikulak’s breakout performance at Visa Championships was no fluke.
The Puerto Rico injury delayed his true introduction to the senior level last year, but in 2010 Mikulak won the NCAA all-around title as a freshman and also took the U.S. junior all-around title. Prior to that, the Southern Californian was a star on the junior circuit for years, routinely bringing home medals at junior Visa Championships and Junior Olympic National Championships since 2006.
“His finish (at Visa Championships) wasn’t surprising at all. Not to those of us who know Sam really well,” Horton said. “He’s had some injuries in the past, and we all know how extremely talented he is, and he finally did what he is capable of.”
Now he just has to do it again in San Jose. And chances are that he’s not stressing out about it.
Mikulak might be living in Ann Arbor, Mich., but he still has the laid-back demeanor of a SoCal surf bum. With his spiked up hair and perma-smile, Mikulak always looked relaxed and in control. That was especially evident at the Visa Championships when, eight seconds into his parallel bars routine, a coach had to rush onto the podium to tighten one of the bars.
“That was just chaos,” Mikulak said.
Yet 27 seconds later, he stuck the dismount and was smiling again. His two-day score of 31.200 on parallel bars was second only to Leyva, the defending world champion.
“He’s just always living in the moment, man,” said C.J. Maestas, a longtime competitor who is also in San Jose for the Olympic Trials. “He’s always got a smile on his face.”
With another cool performance like that, Mikulak could be smiling all the way to London.