U.S. gymnast Sam Mikulak holds his arms out and smiles after competing in the horizontal bar at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Sam Mikulak (Michigan, gymnastics) is heading out on top. And along the way he has found important perspective.
“You’re doing the sport for a reason that is bigger than yourself,” he said before the Tokyo Olympics, “and I think that life lesson has helped me perform in the team competitions and really just rely on others in sharing the weight of the pressure and the stress.”
The three-time Olympian, who is competing in his final Games, helped the U.S. men’s gymnastics team to a fifth-place finish Monday. He still has the individual all-around finals Wednesday at 6:15 a.m. (EDT) and the parallel bars final Aug. 3.
“This was the hardest year I’ve ever had,” he said. “And to be able to come through, put out a show. … This is to show that we do it together. No one is alone out there. We can always do our best when we have each other.”
Mikulak's best performances have come when he has embraced the team experience, Michigan coach Kurt Golder said. He pointed to the World Championships in Belgium. Mikulak was loose, listening to music, dancing and celebrating when other gymnasts nailed their performances.
Jordan Gaarenstroom, his childhood friend and former Michigan teammate, said one of the most memorable moments the two shared came after the Wolverines won their second NCAA title in 2014. After Mikulak, the final gymnast that day, nailed his routine to clinch the title, he immediately threw his arms up and celebrated wildly with his teammates.
Mikulak thrived at Michigan, leading his team to two consecutive national titles in 2013 and 2014.
“Being able to have NCAA gymnastics as a resource to get athletes to sports, to have athletes understand what that feels like, helps on a grand stage like the Olympics or World Championships,”Mikulak said.
When he became an Olympian for the first time, his goal was to become a three-time Olympian, Golder recalled. And Mikulak has done just that.
He has also become more engaged with the community.
For the past five or six years, Gaarenstroom said they would run clinics at a local gym wherever Mikulak competed. It was fulfilling for the families. And for them.
Mikulak, who obtained a bachelor's degree in psychology, is considering returning to school to study more on the subject and to help high-level athletes improve their mental skills and to manage the unique challenges athletes face, Gaarenstroom said.
“Being able to say I am something else rather than a gymnast is probably one of the biggest life lessons that I’ve taken through my whole mental health rediscovery,” Mikulak told NBC Sports.
Gymnastics will always be a part of Mikulak, but knowing he is more than a gymnast has made this closing of a life chapter even more special.
“Now here’s my final push,” he said. “I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”