Sam Mikulak has been here before: It’s an Olympic year, and perhaps the most promising U.S. man in gymnastics is coming off a season clouded by injury. This time, however, he has a wealth of knowledge to know how to handle himself.
It was four years ago that the now three-time national champion had broken both ankles during a floor exercise in the lead-up to the London Olympics. The California native made the 2012 team, however, and put in a solid yet less-than-satisfying performance at those Summer Games.
In a sport with a short shelf life, Mikulak is making the past work for him in the present.
“I learned last time to be able to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Mikulak said of 2012. “It’s about being able to know that things aren’t always going to go your way and you have to make the best of it. I’m learning still.”
Been there, done that, Mikulak says. And now, it’s time to go after the big prize.
“I wanna be the all-around Olympic gold medalist,” Mikulak mused in a phone interview with USA Gymnastics. “I want to go to Rio and enjoy what I’m doing. That’s it.”
To start, Mikulak doesn’t have two broken ankles to heal ahead of the biggest meet of his life. A left ankle injury sat him out of the World Championships last fall in Glasgow, but now the 23-year-old said there are only two skills he’s holding back on as he nears total health with his ankle.
“My aspirations are a lot bigger for these Olympics compared to 2012,” said Mikulak, who won his first-ever Winter Cup two weeks ago in Las Vegas. “To start off with a victory with this injury in recovery, that sits well with me.”
What also sits well with him is that four years on, he’s a smarter, more experienced gymnast than the one that went to London. This Olympic process – a crescendo of sorts – is something that has taught him a lot.
“This round is much different; I’ve had a lot more time to prepare,” Mikulak said. “I had the goal to go to London in 2012, but it didn’t seem real until I was on the team. But I’ve been looking forward to 2016 ever since.”
While looking ahead, Mikulak has changed a once-chaotic routine into one of meticulous self-care. Last May, he moved to Colorado Springs to live and train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, a much different set-up than the do-everything life he was leading at the University of Michigan in 2012. There is no class to attend, no homework to keep him up at night. He is literally eating, sleeping and breathing gymnastics.
“For me, I have a bare minimum of what will make training work well: rehab, sleep and diet,” Mikulak explained. “I don’t have school work, I can make sure I’m going to bed at the right time on the weekends and the recovery that they have [at the Training Center] is the most amazing facility in the world.”
Even his sleep is down to a science: He pops up before his alarm on a daily basis, a well-oiled machine with a singular goal in mind.
“It’s weird… I will sleep eight hours on the dot,” Mikulak laughed. “If I go to bed at 10, I get up at 6. Midnight? 8 AM. It’s kind of cool.”
Saturday, Mikulak and Team Hilton teammate Donnell Whittenburg will represent the U.S. at the AT&T American Cup in Newark, the first of FIG’s World Cup stops this spring.
“American Cup is an important competition for him,” said Vitaly Marinitch, head coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. “Sam needs to get out there again and show USA Gymnastics and the judges that he’s back. With his injury, he’s at the stage where he’s almost there, but not quite.”
“American Cup is a big meet,” Marinitch added. “So I think it’s important for him to do well. I think he will be ready.”
While Mikulak didn’t qualify for the all-around competition at the London Games, he doesn’t hesitate to set aspirations high this year. He sees defending Olympic champion (and six-time Worlds winner) Kohei Uchimura as an inspiration.
For Mikulak, it’s about maximizing what he’s doing day in and day out to find that next level – that Olympic level.
“I used to not live this lifestyle, and I had a lot of success without this routine,” Mikulak explained. “Maybe I was performing at 90 percent of potential. Now, I feel like I’m 95 or higher. It’s a five percent change but… if you want to beat out the rest of the world, all of those little things count. It comes down to .01 percent. You want to be the guy on the gold medal stand. I want that to be me.”