When competition begins in Boston this week at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak will be chasing history.
After sitting out the all-around at last year’s U.S. championships, Mikulak comes to Boston seeking his fifth U.S. title. No one has won five U.S. titles since Blaine Wilson’s run from 1996-2000 and only six gymnasts have ever won five or more U.S. all-around titles.
“I definitely have aspirations to keep some type of record in the U.S. when it comes to national championships,” Mikulak revealed. “But in the end, you can’t think of the end result.”
Mikulak instead is focusing on making every moment count as he goes for this third-straight Olympic Games.
“Every attempt, you don’t have to do too many, but as long as they’re perfect and you’re always trying your hardest, that’s what you have to do and really stay in the moment,” he said.
At 25, Mikulak feels “old,” noting that when he looks around he no longer sees the familiar faces that marched into competition with him at the Olympic Games in London and Rio.
But as his teammates have hung up their grips and moved on from competitive gymnastics, Mikulak has only continued to improve.
He feels like he’s in the best shape and condition of his life – though a jammed back two weeks ago has interrupted his training for the U.S. championships slightly – and the first half of the 2018 season has seen some of his best, most consistent performances in recent memory.
A LOT MORE FOCUSED AND A LOT MORE DEDICATED
Mikulak’s resurgence began in February 2017. That’s when he tore his Achilles tendon at the Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas.
“That was when I kind of had this revelation about [my] emotional happiness,” he says. “After I tore my Achilles, it gave me time to think about that a little bit more and I ended up buying a home, had the girlfriend move out [here] after she graduated from college, I got a puppy.”
“I was just constantly obsessed with making sure my body’s healthy, doing all this recovery,” Mikulak added, “and I think I really lacked the emotional support going into the 2016 Games.”
The 2017 Winter Cup Challenge was to be his first meet since the 2016 Olympic Games, and he had pushed himself hard in the gym to get back in shape. But then the injury came.
It was almost inevitable, he says, after having a partial Achilles tear in 2015 that kept him out of the World Championships, and broken ankles in the 2011 season.
A year-and-a-half later, his ankles feel better than they did in the run-up to Rio.
And with more going on outside the gym, Mikulak now says he’s more focused and more dedicated during his time in the gym.
“When I’m there, I’m there, and when I’m home, there’s a separation and I don’t have to rely on one thing in order to have a good day,” said Mikulak. “I can always come back and feel a consistent happy vibe when I come home.”
That consistent vibe has produced consistent results for Mikulak so far in 2018, including a six-for-six performance at the Pacific Rim Championships in April.
His total there, an 87.700, is the second highest score in the world so far, according to the gymnastics blog thegymter.net.
A THIRD STRAIGHT OLYMPICS
Mikulak doesn’t shy away from his desire to lead the U.S. team in his third-straight Olympic Games.
Tokyo 2020 is a clear aim.
“I want it, and I’m going strong for it,” he said of a possible third Olympic berth.
Mikulak hopes his experience can be a source of strength for his younger U.S. teammates, saying he’s taken on more of a leadership role than in his previous two quadrenniums.
His goal is to encourage his fellow gymnasts to feel able to voice their opinions, something he feels has been lacking.
“I try to get everyone’s opinions and make sure everyone feels like they’re heard because everyone’s got a lot of good input. I know when I was younger, I felt like I never really could actually get what I felt across,” Mikulak said.
“I kind of put myself in their shoes and really wanted to make them get to the heart of what they wanted, some changes that needed to be made.”
He’s hoping that those changes will change the Olympic result for the U.S. men, who after team medals in 2004 and 2008, have finished fifth in Mikulak’s two appearances.
“I want to be a team player because that’s something that I haven’t had… you know, we haven’t any team success in my past quadrenniums,” Mikulak said.
“That’s really what I’m looking forward to accomplishing going into this quad.”