By Blythe Lawrence | Oct. 18, 2018, 4:54 p.m. (ET)

Sam Mikulak (C) huddles with teammates at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 18, 2018 in Boston.

 

There was a time when Sam Mikulak took a not-so-cool approach to preparation for the world gymnastics championships.

“I would stress myself out a lot when it comes to outside the gym factors: dieting, sleeping, recovery, just being so obsessed with my gymnastics,” the two-time Olympian and leader of the U.S. men’s team explains with a California drawl that belies his intensity.

It was a vicious cycle. Between training sessions, when the idea was rest and recovery, Mikulak wouldn’t be able to tear his mind away from his routines.

Getting the details exactly right is paramount in a sport where one mistimed skill, a slight hesitation or an uncertain landing can be the difference between a podium finish and a participation certificate. Mikulak knows that better than most: in three appearances at the world championships, he’s finished as high as fourth individually — on high bar, in 2013 — and graced the podium once — with the team, in 2014 — but has yet to secure a coveted individual world medal for himself.

It’s one of the only accolades missing from a stellar career that has already included two Olympics and five U.S. all-around titles. Fulfilling as his accomplishments have been, it’s the hole in his resume has been on his mind as he prepares for this year’s world championships, beginning Oct. 25 in Doha, Qatar.

“I’ve been saying it for too many years now: I need to break out into this international scene,” the 25-year-old former Michigan Wolverine said. “And I actually feel like this is going to be the year I do it. I’ve hit a point in my gymnastics where I’ve been doing my routines way too long, and I’ve built a level of confidence. I’ve been able to put scores out there and been able to refine my routines to a point where I’m confident heading into the world championships.”

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If all goes according to plan, Mikulak will be a multiple-event medal threat in the Middle East. He’s posted one of the highest all-around scores in the world so far this year — an 87.75 as he won his fifth U.S. men’s title back in August — a mark slightly above six-time world champion Kohei Uchimura’s best on the season, according to a database kept by the gymnter.net. That alone makes him a viable candidate for an all-around medal, provided he can deliver six clean routines on the day of the competition.

He’s also made Olympic finals on floor, vault and high bar, where he finished just off the podium in Rio in 2016.

The difference this year? Preparation, yes — Mikulak says his body feels great after a niggling back problem at August’s U.S. championships, and that he’s fully recovered from the Achilles tear he suffered at the beginning of 2017. Above that, his approach to competition has been refined along with his routines. Some of it has come from external factors, such as being able to come home to his girlfriend Mia and puppy Marshall at the end of long days of training. Even his recovery process is softer: he’s ditched hyperventilating in cold tubs for a quarter hour in a steam room after practice.

“This time it’s not on my mind like it used to be,” he said. “I have outlets: coming home, puppy, girlfriend. I’m trying not to put the weight of the world on my shoulders, just focusing on the process of keeping myself happy while this process goes down.”

On the national level, Mikulak has been wildly successful. He and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Blaine Wilson are the only two men to have won five U.S. championships in the modern era of the sport. When asked why he felt he was so successful, Mikulak paused to think, then said this: 

“I think what I’ve done throughout my gymnastics career is prioritize my health and recovery. I’ve played the safe route when it comes to should I do this or should I not. Lately I’ve kind of realized emotional happiness is the biggest factor in gymnastics. A lot of people can get scared in this sport, and being scared is not something I’ve ever felt in this sport. A lot of it comes from having parents who were gymnasts and coaches that believed in me. Communicating well. There’s so many variables that affect it, but if I come into the gym and am happier than everyone, I get a lot more out of my days. I enjoy the process and have been able to be fearless throughout it all.”

That will be something he’ll hold on to as he prepares to compete in Qatar. With the weight of the world off his shoulders this time. 

Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.