|Sam Mikulak celebrates at the 2015 P&G Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 14, 2015 in Indianapolis.|
INDIANAPOLIS – For Sam Mikulak, the 2015 season marks a new Sam: new home, new mindset, new athlete.
Long gone are the days of the Newport Coast, California, native dancing his way from rotation to rotation across the competition floor – a tradition that spawned the oh-so-popular “Sam dance cam” for the past two years.
Now 22 and a college graduate, Mikulak has traded in his goofy dance moves for a life of mindfulness and meditation – and it’s paying off.
He topped the standings after the first day of men’s competition at the P&G Gymnastics Championships, with a whopping 2.35-point lead.
“I think this was very similar to 2013, when I started off in quite the lead,” Mikulak said of his performance Friday night.
In 2013, Mikulak led by 2.95 points on the first night, before eventually earning his first national title.
One year ago, however, Mikulak struggled in the first half of competition and was fourth – coincidentally, 2.35 points back from the lead – before coming back on the second day to successfully defend his title.
“I don’t really think too much of how everyone else is doing, but if I’m happy with what I’m doing, that’s all that really matters,” he said.
In addition to a change in mindset, the biggest factor in his improved performance this season has been his recent move to Colorado. Mikulak went from the collegiate lifestyle at the University of Michigan to shaping his life solely around gymnastics by living at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
And the results have followed. While he struggled to put together six clean routines last season, finishing 12th at the world championships, this year he became the first U.S. man to win Pan American Games gold in 28 years, and now he is on track to become the first to win three all-around national titles since Olympic champion Paul Hamm did so in 2002-04.
“If I can be compared to him, that’s one of the greatest people you can be compared to,” Mikulak said of the quest to match Hamm’s feat.
Mikulak’s best performance of the night came on parallel bars, where he scored 16.25, a meet record. Parallel bars is also the event he scored the lowest on the past two years.
“We’ve been focusing on polishing our routines, making them look a lot more international and so every little detail we’ve been trying to work on being able to make them second nature,” he said of his new parallel bars routine. “It’s showing a level of professionalism that I’m not just doing the skills. I’m showing off the skills to you…
“I think it’s been very helpful focusing on that since I’ve been at the OTC. Coaching’s been great. The guys really push you to find that look.”
After a four-year career at Michigan that included three NCAA all-around titles, two team titles and four event titles, the psychology major moved to the OTC to change his approach to the sport.
“By moving out to Colorado, it was a commitment to gymnastics by saying I want to make the most out of this year leading up to Rio,” he said.
He is now surrounded by a talented group of athletes – most of whom are also competing this week in Indianapolis – who share a common goal of striving to make the Olympic team. Mikulak said he bases his entire being around the pursuit for excellence in his sport – from practice to recovery, eating to sleeping.
He also brought with him to Colorado a newfound passion for meditation.
In his super senior year at Michigan, Mikulak and teammate/roommate Stacey Ervin took a contemplative practices seminar that introduced them to the art.
“We would just sit on our zafus in our apartment and meditate together for 15 minutes every day,” Mikulak said. “Something about it gave us an ease and peacefulness that I think we were lacking in our hectic college lives, so that really stuck with me as I moved to Colorado – to try to keep my mind at ease.”
The new lifestyle has followed him onto the gymnastics floor as well.
“I think that’s taken over my dancing time,” he said. “When I was dancing, I was that college kid having fun with gymnastics. That’s a little behind me right now. I’m trying to focus on being an elite gymnast and trying to get that level of professionalism that some people do think I’ve been lacking over the past years.”
Fortunately, he hasn’t left behind his high-scoring performances.