ST. LOUIS – Sam Mikulak would like to go to space. But first, he’s got an Olympic gold medal to win.
The 23 year old heads into this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials with a clear and certain goal: Make the Rio team and win all-around gold there. It’s an out-of-this-world dream of an earthling who has spent much of the last four years defying gravity in the gym – and launching himself atop plenty of podiums.
“I’m chasing an Olympic gold medal in the all around,” Mikulak told reporters Wednesday. “Internationally, there are so many great gymnasts out there, and I haven’t really had a breakout competition on the international scene, so I want to make this year my year.”
But first? St. Louis. Three weeks ago at the P&G Gymnastics Championships, Mikulak became the first man in over 15 years to win back-to-back-to-back-to-back national titles, all-around champion for the fourth straight year after having made the 2012 Olympic team that placed fifth in London.
Mikulak must deliver over the next few days inside Chaifetz Arena to secure his spot on the Rio squad, but that hasn’t stopped him from speaking his mind on what he wants – and expects – of himself.
“I’m a firm believer that if you want to accomplish something, you have to make everyday molded around striving for that goal,” Mikulak said. “If you can’t see it, you can’t do it. That’s my perspective of reaching my dreams: That’s a lofty goal! That’s terrifying. But if you don’t confront it everyday, you’re going to stay terrified of it.”
What Mikulak hasn’t been terrified of is making sacrifices for his gymnastics. The California native by way of the University of Michigan has made his home base at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he’s to bed most nights by 10 and up early the next morning.
That includes sacrifices like an Olympic-tinged diet, one that doesn’t allow him to partake in his guiltiest of pleasures: The BJ’s Brewhouse Pizookie.
“It’s my favorite dessert of all time,” a grinning Mikulak said. “It’s a delicious cookie with heaps of ice cream on top of it. The contrast is perfect. They recently came out with monkey bread Pizookie which has changed the game quite a bit, but my favorite is sea salt and caramel.”
When will Mikulak allow himself one of these masterpieces?
“After the Olympic Games, it will probably be something I will want to indulge in,” he said, straight-faced.
On Saturday night the five-man Olympic team will be named (along with three replacement athletes), and three of Mikulak’s London teammates are vying for said spots, including Jake Dalton, Danell Leyva and John Orozco.
Yet the old guard has been challenged by a host of newcomers – as well as veterans like Chris Brooks and Steven Legendre. U.S. men’s gymnastics continues to up its ante, a program that knows – like Mikulak – that it can hit on the international stage if everything works; when everything works.
“I think this is the strongest we’ve ever been as a team,” said Mikulak. “There is so much potential. Gymnastics has just escalated so much through the years. The physical fitness that everyone is required to have at this stage in our lives; This is the best it gets.”
He continued: “I’m always trying to push the bar. My standards for myself are pretty high. Even if I fall short of it, I’m still highly accomplished. We’re always reaching for the stars. I haven’t been the best gymnast in the world and until that day comes, that’s going to be my goal.”
An Achilles injury set Mikulak out for the World Championships last fall, and he said he’s healthy enough to have forgotten about his time away from the sport.
“That feels like a long time ago,” he said.
Along with that goal of an Olympic gold medal, there is that goal of space travel, though Mikulak said that will come after his career, which seems far, far off at this point.
“Yes, I want to go to space, too,” Mikulak said, laughing. “It’s a bucket list; for the rest of my life. Right now, it’s about gymnastics.”
And while he’s the reigning four-time U.S. champion, he still feels like he’s the one that’s after something. Perhaps that Olympic gold medal?
“I still see myself as chasing,” he said. “It’s all about what you do these next couple of days. It’s one event and one skill at a time.”