KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sam Mikulak has gone through the circle of life as an elite gymnast.
He’s been the bright future, having made the 2012 Olympic team while still in college. Then he was the stalwart, winning all four U.S. titles after that en route to a second Olympic Games in 2016. One year later Mikulak was the injured veteran, limited for several months after a torn Achilles tendon.
Now Mikulak, 26, is back at the top of his game, and he’s embraced another new stage in his career: the elder statesman.
“I love it way more,” he said, “because I think when I was younger, something about just not being sure about everything, always looking up to someone means someone knows more than you do. And I guess being in the spot that I’m in now, I feel like I do know pretty much the gist of everything.”
That showed Thursday as the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, opened in Kansas City, Missouri.
Mikulak, aiming to defend his all-around title, got off to a strong start, posting the top scores on three events (floor exercise, parallel bars and high bar) and building a nearly three-point lead in the all-around with 86.75 points. The only mistake came on vault, when he missed his block and under-rotated, forcing him to shuffle out of bounds. Nonetheless, it’d take a disaster for him to fall short of the all-around title when the combined two-day event wraps up Saturday night at the Sprint Center.
Winning national titles is nothing new for Mikulak. The former Michigan Wolverine won nine of them at the NCAA level, and a U.S. all-around title this weekend would be his sixth. He also has eight individual event national titles … so far.
This time around is different, though.
“I think at this point, going for six, I just feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin,” he said after Thursday’s competition. “I’m sure of myself, I don’t have anything I’m second-guessing, no training plan that I think I should have been doing, I just found a rhythm, and I’ve really been able to perfect everything about my training leading up to these big competitions.”
In fact, Mikulak is feeling so good that he’s talking about making not just a third Olympic team next year in Tokyo, but maybe even a fourth in 2024 and, heck, why not a fifth in 2028, when the Games will be just up the road from his hometown in Los Angeles.
“My plan is to keep going,” Mikulak said Wednesday, before his podium training session.
Refreshed And Rejuvenated
The transition for Mikulak began in earnest last year.
After years of not quite living up to expectations at the Olympic or international level, the outwardly chill gymnast realized he was starting to obsess about the sport.
“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,” he told TeamUSA.org last October.
So he changed. He dropped training methods that didn’t seem to be helping, like hyperventilating in a cold tub after practices. He also moved into a house with his girlfriend, Mia, and they became dog parents to a bull terrier named Marshall. The latter two provided an outlet from the sport that he never truly had when living at the nearby U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The result had Mikulak doing some of the best gymnastics of his life in 2018, and after two Olympic Games and three world championships in which he’d never finished higher than fourth in an individual event, he believed he was finally on the cusp of breaking through to the podium at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.
That nearly happened in the all-around, when he entered the final rotation in third place. Then he missed a grip on the high bar — typically one of his strongest events — and fell to fifth in the final standings. That preceded more fourth-place finishes, this time on parallel bars and pommel horse.
Finally, in the last event final, high bar, he did it. Mikulak performed a clean routine, only making a slight hop on the landing, to finish third and claim his first major individual medal.
Staying Consistent, Staying Strong — And Looking Far Ahead
The all-around result in Doha still stings.
“I’m still grateful to have won (the high bar medal), but I think the all-around loss before that, it definitely took away from that experience quite a bit,” he said.
But Mikulak wasn’t in any hurry to make drastic changes for 2019.
“Every year I feel like I’ve done something different,” he said. “Last year I felt like it was exactly what I wanted to do, and I finally found a routine that’s good for me, so I’ve just been sticking with essentially last year’s routine.”
He and Mia did make one change: They got another dog, Lily.
So not only did Mikulak arrive in Kansas City feeling fresh and confident, he’s also healthy — at least as far as an elite gymnast goes.
Injuries come with the territory in gymnastics, and Mikulak has had his share of big ones. He made his first Olympic team in 2012 just a year after breaking both legs in a floor exercise routine. A partially torn Achilles tendon kept him out of the 2015 world championships, and then a fully torn Achilles limited him for much of the post-Olympic season in 2017.
“I just had this vision that my body was going to be deteriorating worse and worse after this Achilles tear,” he said.
That hasn’t happened.
“I’m like, the Achilles was like the last thing I had, so maybe I’ve found a rhythm of keeping myself healthy,” he said. “I’ve learned how to communicate better, listen to my body better and also balance so many other things better.”
Now Mikulak is focused on winning more national titles this week, and then on breaking through to win that coveted all-around medal at the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany.
“One bronze medal isn’t going to satisfy my hunger,” he said. “Now I’m out for more. I want to get that all-around medal.”
He’s also thinking more about his legacy. Though Mikulak stops short of saying he’d like to follow the career of Oksana Chusovitina, the 44-year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan who is aiming for her eighth Olympic Games in Tokyo, he says he’s now eager to be an example of longevity in men’s gymnastics.
“I want to break the barrier that gymnasts don’t have to retire after college or in their mid-20s, that you can train in a way that keeps you healthy longer,” he said.
Or, to put it another way: “Maybe my new goal is to be the oldest successful gymnast possible.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.