By John Powers
Sam Mikulak has won the last three men’s national all-around crowns. If he makes it four in a row at this weekend’s P&G Gymnastics Championships in Hartford, Conn., he’ll share a bit of history with John Becker (1956-59), Blaine Wilson (1996-2000), Makoto Sakamoto (1963-67) and Alfred Jochim (1925-30), the only other U.S. males to manage it. "Oh, really?," Mikulak said on the eve of Friday’s first day of competition at the XL Center. "I like history."
This year, though, the 23-year-old from Newport Coast, Calif., is more interested in current events, specifically making the team for this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. "It’s all about building the team," says Mikulak, who was on the squad that placed fifth in London in 2012. "We want to win a team gold in Rio. That’s the dream. People remember that. That’s the legacy. Individuals don’t quite go as far. The better the team, the better everyone will perform individually."
Last time, Mikulak was named to the squad by the selection committee because of his individual skills in events like pommel horse where the lineup needed a boost. "I don’t think anyone wants to be waiting for their name to be called in that room but it’s part of the process," says Mikulak, who’d been sitting third in the standings before spraining an ankle on vault on the first day of the trials and was limited to one rotation in the finale. "People are going to be disappointed, people are going to be happy. You’ve just got to do your gymnastics. The better you do, the better your chances are."
Based on his three all-around titles, Mikulak should have an excellent chance to claim one of the two automatic Olympic tickets reserved for the top two all-arounders at the conclusion of the St. Louis trials in three weeks, provided that they also rank among the top three in half of the six events. The one question at the beginning of the year was how well Mikulak would rebound from the Achilles tendon and ankle injuries that kept him out of last October’s World Championships in Glasgow.
"Sam did a great job with the doctors and trainers and his rehab process and that took some patience," says national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. "Guys want to come back maybe sooner than your body wants you to. But he did a really good job of taking his time and making sure that his Achilles and ankle were healthy."
Four years ago, Mikulak was still a teenager at the University of Michigan, working toward both a diploma and an NCAA title. This time, it’s only about the gym. "This go-about, I’m not in school. I’m much more dedicated to the sport," he says. "Just gymnastics has been my life for the past year. Everything I learned from the last go-around I’m able to apply to my life right now and make sure I’m doing everything possible to be as healthy as I can, as prepared as I can."
For Mikulak, as gymnastics has evolved from an avocation to a profession, absolute attention to his craft has become mandatory. "He’s taking into account every aspect of what it means to be a top gymnast in the world, from his nutrition, his recovery, his mental game planning, every part of it," observes Mazeika. "He’s living and breathing being an elite athlete. It’s been a growth process. Sam’s learning more about how to take care of himself in and out of the gym. Just be ready to go over the long haul."
Mikulak has been through the long haul before. What makes the reprise different is that three of his London teammates and the three alternates are here for another go-about as well. Which is why winning a fourth consecutive championship is less important to him than how he performs here and in St. Louis with an Olympic berth on the line. "I mean, winning a title is nothing," Mikulak says. "If I hit my 12 routines and somebody beats me, hey, I did my job. I’ll be more upset if I win and fall on two routines than if I lose hitting 12."
Once again, four years will be compressed into four nights for him and everyone else who’s going for the Games. "It’s going to come down to who hits their routines, who’s going to be the cleanest and who can step up to the challenge of performing in front of a big crowd and putting the pressure on everybody else," Mikulak says. "It’s all about testing yourself, proving yourself. And whoever can do that the most can be on the team."