|Sam Mikulak competes on the rings at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Gymnastics at HP Pavilion on June 28, 2012 in San Jose, Calif.|
Sam Mikulak’s junior year at the University of Michigan didn’t have a great beginning, but the ending could be sweet.
While training for the Wolverines’ 2013 gymnastics season in October, the 2012 U.S. Olympian tore a muscle in his left calf. Although the injury didn’t require surgery, Mikulak had to wear a walking cast for about a month, missed three months of training and then had to go through several weeks of rehab.
Now, however, Mikulak is healthy and he and his teammates are hoping to bring home a team championship at the NCAA Championships which begin Friday at Penn State’s Recreation Hall.
The No. 3-ranked Wolverines are on a roll, having just won the Big Ten team championship — outscoring No. 1 ranked Penn State — while Mikulak won the Big Ten all-around title with the highest score in the nation this year (89.700) and was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Year.
Mikulak might not be all the way back yet following the calf injury and an ankle problem that required surgery after the London Games (first suffered last summer during the Olympic Trials), but he’s close.
“It’s healed now,” Mikulak said of the calf. “I don’t have any problems with it. Sometimes if I have short landings it’ll flare up and get some swelling, but I haven’t had too much of that lately. It kind of gave time for my ankle to rest while I was out with the calf injury. So now that the calf has healed, they both have pretty much healed.”
Following the way the Wolverines performed at the Big Ten championships, Mikulak and his teammates are confident.
|Sam Mikulak reacts after competing in the men's vault final at the
London 2012 Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena on
Aug. 6, 2012.
“We’re just trying to continue the energy from the Big Tens into the NCAA tournament,” he said. “That was the first competition where we had a full lineup and everyone was healthy.”
Mikulak and teammate Adrian de los Angeles finished 1-2 in the all-around and the Wolverines qualified for 18 of the of the 60 spots available in the individual event finals, which resulted in three individual titles. Syque Caesar won parallel bars, Stacey Ervin won floor and Mikulak won high bar (15.700). In addition, Mikulak set an NCAA record with a 15.95 score on parallel bars during the all-around.
Mikulak wasn’t completely happy with his own performance and believes there’s room for improvement. If he can clean a few things up, he could regain the NCAA all-around championship that he won in 2011. He was runner-up in 2012.
“You know, some events like pommel horse and high bar were a little sloppy,” he said. “So there was good and positives, but overall, taking away from it, getting six-for-six (individual finals) was the best I could have done.”
A desire for individual awards isn’t what’s driving Mikulak, however.
Since coming to Michigan, he hasn’t had the chance to experience an NCAA team championship. He has plenty of individual honors — and also claimed a spot on the fifth-place U.S. Olympic Team at London (finishing fifth in vault) — but he’s hungry to take that team trophy back to Ann Arbor.
Michigan has won four NCAA team titles, but the last came in 2010, the year before Mikulak came to Michigan from his home in California to compete for coach Kurt Golder.
With teammates such as de los Angeles, Caesar and Ervin competing at a high level, Mikulak thinks they can do it. In fact, since this group of athletes has been together, it’s been a clear goal to win not just one NCAA title, but multiple championships. On Twitter, Mikulak and his teammates punctuate their messages with #MGymDynasty.
He knows winning this year won’t be easy. Penn State is not only very good but also is hosting the championships, and second-ranked Oklahoma is extremely consistent.
But with de los Angeles ranked No. 1 in all-around nationally, the confidence and consistency of Caesar (an Olympian for Bangladesh at London), Ervin — who is ranked No. 2 in floor and vault — and the rest of the group, Mikulak believes it can be done.
Ervin’s energy, in fact, was a catalyst at the Big Ten championships and he’s hoping Michigan can plug into it again.
“He (Ervin) is like the powerhouse of the team,” Mikulak said. “He creates all the energy. He’s like the biggest cheerleader. He gets everyone rallied and puts on a show that can hype up a whole arena.”
Michigan will be in a semifinal grouping Friday with Oklahoma, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska and Air Force. The other group has Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa, California and Temple.
The top three teams from each group advance to the finals.
Now healthy again and with the confidence and experience he acquired from his Olympic experience, Mikulak wants to be part of a team effort at Penn State this weekend that he knows could feel special.
To see his teammates perform the way he knows they can — while doing his part — is what’s driving him.
“I just want to go out there and hit all my routines and have my team hit all their routines and come back with an NCAA team championship,” he says. “That’s one accolade that I have yet to accomplish.”
Of course, he would also like to achieve some more goals at the Olympic level, too, and has his sights set on competing in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“(The Games in London) definitely exceeded my expectations,” Mikulak said. “It was very monumental, and I'm pretty sure I will remember it for the rest of my life. It definitely left us with some aspirations to go back in a couple of years and go for that Olympic gold.”