Sam Mikulak poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 19, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Beneath the laid-back facade, Sam Mikulak was struggling.
Sure, he looked like the image of California chill — a tanned, toned six-time national gymnastics champion who could do no wrong in U.S. competition. In his charmed career, nothing ever seemed to faze him.
Not breaking both his ankles at a competition in Puerto Rico in 2011; he came back to make the 2012 Olympic team — and the vault final — the next summer.
Not tearing his Achilles tendon on a tumbling takeoff in 2017; post-surgery, he posted a picture of his opened up heel on the operating table, a snapshot that could only be described as gnarly, and recovered in time to compete two apparatus at the world championships that year.
Not even the pandemic seemed to throw him; shut out of his training gym during lockdown, he shot Instagram-worthy videos of himself doing strength exercises in lush outdoor settings and snuggling with his three dogs, all named for characters from “How I Met Your Mother.”
It looked as idyllic as could be. It wasn’t.
Beneath the surface, Mikulak was battling an acute case of self-doubt. As the accolades piled up, so did his desire to control his fate, to win more medals, to be the very best. At the 2016 Olympics and several world championships, he went in as a medal contender only to fall just short of his goals. No matter how much positive self-talk he flooded his mind with before competitions, the nerves never subsided.
“I was living in the pressure,” Mikulak, now 28, recalled at last week’s U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas. “I want to get all these national titles, I want to be recognized as one of the greatest in men’s gymnastics. I think in a way that kind of backfires for when the pressure really stacks on.”
For years, the man with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Michigan refused to talk to a sports psychologist. He was fine, he insisted, and anyway, he didn’t want to be the guy who needed help, which he likened to weakness. But as the years passed and the end of his career approached slowly, he came to understand that he couldn’t handle everything himself.
Therapy obliterated some long-held assumptions. He learned to mitigate his expectations. To recall what he loved about gymnastics. To remember that he wasn’t the only person in the arena, or the only person going through something difficult.
“I’m just happy to be out here; that’s been the big shift,” he said before the championships began.
The nerves haven’t gone away — far from it — but Mikulak has opened himself up to considering them. Doing so has allowed him to let some of his high expectations go. On the first day of the two-day competition, he made numerous mistakes and finished in seventh place, nearly four points behind eventual champion Brody Malone.
Before, the disappointment might have crushed him. This time, Mikulak shrugged and carried on. He announced last winter that he would retire after Tokyo. This was his final nationals; why not enjoy it?
“Coming around for this last one, I think that what I’m looking for the most is just gratitude and being happy with everything that I’ve done up until this point. Knowing that the end is so close it’s kind of like I’m getting my senioritis vibes,” he said. “I’m just trying to appreciate it as much as I can, because I think for so long I haven’t appreciated it the way it should have been.”
On night two, he came out and crushed his routines, rocketing up the leaderboard to place third behind Malone and Yul Moldauer.
“I enjoy putting on a show, and that was the big shift I had with my mindset,” he said. “How do I have fun? Put on a performance."
It’s not the sport they do, or even accomplishments they have that defines a person, he believes now. It’s simpler than that.
“Something I’ve really honed in on recently is not making gymnastics your identity,” he said. “If you think that being the best gymnast or whatever you’re doing is going to make you feel fulfilled, that’s not the way to go. What are your values in life? How do you act upon those values? Do you feel like gymnastics is a way to help you help others? Finding those types of reasons through the sport are going to get you a lot more satisfaction.”
Ironically, opening up about his mental health struggles has been more cathartic than he ever imagined. His frank social media posts about his feelings and sharing his story as part of a mental health panel hosted by USA Gymnastics last month has created a groundswell of support from those who have identified with his struggles.
“It’s created a lot of conversations that I’ve just never had before,” he said. “There are so many people that are actually connected, but no one’s talking about it, and so I think that’s the nicest thing, that I’ve been able to connect a lot of these dots. It’s making me feel comfortable, and it’s making me feel proud of being able to share this story and be vulnerable with others and people being able to respect that and be positive back in return.”
Another thing that has helped him appreciate gymnastics is considering what his life will be like without it. Mikulak is not sure what he’ll do once the Olympics are over, though he has racked his brain, flicking through a list of career possibilities — realtor? coach? clinician? — before ultimately deciding to take a couple months to breathe and go from there.
“For so long I was stressing about what the future was going to have in store, and it was taking away from the moment that I should be living in, which is right now,” he said. Post-gymnastics life? “Future Sam will worry about it,” he said. “All I get is right now.”