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Even At 27, Gymnast Sam Mikulak Is Still Making Strides On His Path To Third Olympics

By Jim Caple | July 23, 2020, 12:57 p.m. (ET)

Sam Mikulak poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 19, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.

 

Sam Mikulak got started in gymnastics when he was just 2 years old, because his parents, Steve and Tina, had been gymnasts. He also played other sports, such as baseball, basketball and soccer, but gymnastics became his career. 

“Out of all those sports, gymnastics was my favorite,’’ he said. “I definitely made that decision (to be a gymnast) at a young age. I knew myself best then, and I’m glad this is where I ended up.’’ 

Now 27, Mikulak is the country’s preeminent male gymnast, having won a modern record six U.S. all-around titles since 2013 and competed in two Olympic Games. A quest for a seventh U.S. all-around title and third Olympic Games will have to wait until next summer, however, after COVID-19 forced the cancelation of the 2020 domestic championships and the postponement of the Tokyo Games until 2021.

“I’m hoping the seventh one is going to be the biggest one,’’ he said.

Like other Team USA athletes across all sports, Mikulak has had to alter his plans for 2020 in a big way. It’s been an adjustment, he said, but he’s making the best of it.

A native of Southern California and former NCAA champion at Michigan, Mikulak is now based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he trains with other elite men at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. With that facility shut down, however, he’s been working out at a fitness center 20 minutes away.

“It’s a little club gym, and I’m super thankful to be going there, of course,” he said.

There are challenges, though. Notably, Mikulak said their training slots are typically from 8-10 a.m.

“It’s hard to mentally wake up at that time for some high-level gymnastics,” he said. “But luckily we haven’t been grinding out routines. It’s just about maintaining certain levels of fitness and making sure of every little bit of my body is prepared for getting back into the training center.’’

That return to the USOPTC could come as soon as this week.

“Hopefully, I can go back to training starting Friday,” said Mikulak, adding he had just been tested to make sure he doesn’t have COVID-19.

Going into this next year of training, it will really be a good time for me to focus and dive in to gymnastics for the rest of the year.

In a sport where most elite careers last one or maybe two Olympic quads, Mikulak is closing in on a third, which would make him the first U.S. male gymnast to span nine or more years among Olympic appearances since 1948.

Even as his teammates from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams have moved on, Mikulak believes he’s still getting better, both physically and mentally.

"It’s been a roller coaster, that’s for sure,’’ said Mikulak, a psychology major, who broke through for his first individual medal at the world championships in 2018, when he took bronze on the high bar. “I had so many different moments where I’ve been disappointed and beaten down. I’ve doubted myself, and there were so many times where I won a championship and was so close to getting a medal and all of a sudden I would choke on the final event. The hardest part is coming to terms with your failure and trying to learn from it. That’s been the biggest focus mentally in terms of coming back from a disappointment. Now I have this mindset where every mistake I’ve made, I know I’m not going to make it again."

Mikulak has also used the unexpected break from competition this summer to focus on other areas, both in training and in life.

Earlier this July, he got engaged with Mia Atkins, a broadcaster for FOX21 in Colorado, while on a trip to Catalina Island off the California coast. They had been dating for about 3 ½ years.

"I always thought I would propose at the Olympic Games or something,’’ Mikulak said. “Obviously, COVID-19 got in the way. It’s really been a downer of 2020 for a lot of people and athletes."

He’s also been using this time to learn more about nutrition. The gymnast said he and Atkins switched to gluten- and dairy-free diets, and as a result he’s dropped from 143 pounds to just 138 now.

"So that’s been like a big transition, and focusing on my diet and holding onto my weight and not gaining the quarantine,” he said. “So I’ve been pretty good about that."

He also is working with supplement brand Optimum Nutrition. 

"During this quarantine, I’ve gotten so much time to really dive into the science of nutrition," he said. “I have really gotten a chance to try a lot more of their products and I’ve gotten a little bit obsessed with it, but I think that’s kind of the athletics, gymnastics mentality. Just go in and have a 100 percent commitment to it. I focus so much on my macros, making sure that I get all my intact at the right time. I’m obsessed with this pre-workout amino energy plus drink."

The end goal, of course, is to be back in top form in one year, when the rescheduled Tokyo Games will be kicking off. With some aspects of life and training starting to settle into place, Mikulak said he feels confident about the year ahead.

"Now that I’m here and we’re about to start training, I feel I have so much less stress mentally,’’ he said. “Going into this next year of training, it will really be a good time for me to focus and dive in to gymnastics for the rest of the year."

 

Jim Caple

Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Sam Mikulak