By Jo-Ann Barnas – Special to USA Gymnastics
ARLINGTON, Texas – In a way they sounded like a couple of kids at recess, laughing as they stretched their legs and hips before men’s podium training at the AT&T American Cup.
The athletes were Sam Mikulak and Donnell Whittenburg, U.S. gymnasts and world team bronze medalists who are set to compete in Saturday’s one-day all-around competition at AT&T Stadium.
For sure, they’ll have their game faces on by then. But Thursday was an opportunity for the duo – who became friends at last year’s world championships in China (they even have their own secret handshake) – to become familiar with the cavernous environs of training on a podium constructed atop the Dallas Cowboys home field.
“Don-Don and I have the same personality,” said Mikulak, who’s the defending AT&T American Cup champ. “When I’m with him, it’s just easy. He brings out the best in me.”
Whittenburg said that in addition to having the same sense of humor, he and Mikulak both see value in lightening up the mood when competition stress threatens to settle in.
“You don’t have to be serious all the time,” said Whittenburg, who’s competing in his first AT&T American Cup. “Sam and I work through all different kinds of moments.”
When Mikulak walked into the stadium for the first time Thursday morning and faced the world’s largest video screen that, in football lingo, stretches from the 20-yard line to the 20-yard line, Mikulak said his reaction was, “Sweet!”
He laughed and added: “Are people going to watch the event or the TV the whole time?”
With one more season to go until the 2016 Rio Olympics begins its big build up, both gymnasts said they’re relying on preparation to pull them through. They’re keenly aware how deep the men’s competition is at the AT&T American Cup: The field boasts an array of individual world medalists, including reigning all-around world bronze medalist Yusuke Tanaka of Japan; 2013 world all-around silver medalist Ryohei Kato, and 2014 world parallel bars champion Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine.
A two-time U.S. champion, Mikulak said he’s been working on upgrades – “small pieces at a time,” he said – which will be totally integrated into his routines by the P&G Gymnatics Championships this summer in Indianapolis.
In the short term, Mikulak is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan, where he currently serves as an undergraduate assistant coach after winning three NCAA all-around titles and helping the Wolverines win two team titles.
In his last competition – his first of the year – Mikulak scored the best all-around second-day score at the Winter Cup Challenge finals on Feb. 21 in Las Vegas. He banged his knee on parallel bars a day before the two-day event started, and took a more-cautious approach all weekend, he said.
As for 2014 World teammate, Whittenburg used his performance at the Winter Cup – he won the bronze medal in the all-around behind Paul Ruggeri and Steven Legendre – as preparation for this meet.
“I don’t feel like I have any added pressure,” he said. “You want to think about the journey, not just the outcome.”