By Scott Bregman
It's been good to be Sam Mikulak lately.
In 2012, he made the Olympic team, where he finished fifth with the U.S. team and fifth in the vault final.
He followed up his performance in London with an undefeated domestic all-around season in 2013, taking the titles at the Big Ten, NCAA and P&G Gymnastics Championships. While cementing himself as the top U.S. gymnast, Mikulak helped his University of Michigan team claim the team titles at the Big Ten Championships and NCAA Championships.
He went to the World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium – his first appearance – and finished an impressive sixth in the all-around. Mikulak just missed a medal on the horizontal bar, where he was fourth.
But, for the California-native, who has become known for his 'California Cool' demeanor – and dancing ability – it's not enough.
"I've never accomplished my goal that I want: to be the best gymnast in the world," Mikulak said.
For the 21-year old, being the best male gymnast in the world comes during an era where Kohei Uchimura, the only gymnast, male or female, ever to win four consecutive World all-around titles, has established himself as what many consider to be the greatest gymnast of all time.
"Kohei has been the most dominate gymnast in history. Even better than (Vitaly) Scherbo or (Ivan) Ivankov," Mikulak said of Uchimura. "I feel like Kohei has surpassed everyone."
But Mikulak is undaunted and ready for the challenge: "I just feel like I've been building up to my ultimate goal. Until I accomplish it, I don't think I'll ever lose that motivation."
"If you can beat the best in history, that says a lot," Mikulak added.
And what will it take to beat the best? "Just perfect gymnastics with high start values and being as clean as possible," said Mikulak. "Everything that every gymnast is striving for, [Uchimura] has."
So, just that.
Mikulak, a senior at Michigan, enters his final collegiate season with a chance to make history in the NCAA and perhaps establish himself as the most successful male collegiate gymnast of all time.
In his first three years, Mikulak has collected 13 All-America citations along with five NCAA individual titles. Only four athletes have more individual titles: Joe Giallombrado of Illinois, seven; and Blaine Wilson of Ohio State University and the University of Oklahoma's Jonathan Horton and Steven Legendre, who all won six titles throughout the course of their NCAA careers. A repeat of his 2013 championship performance, where he won three titles (all-around, parallel bars and high bar), would give him the record.
Mikulak's road to the top begins this weekend when he makes his season all-around debut against Michigan archrival Ohio State.
Next, he'll participate in the AT&T American Cup in Greensboro, N.C., on March 1, a competition where U.S. gymnastics greats like Peter Vidmar and Bart Conner have made names for themselves.
"For sure, there is added pressure [being the U.S. champion]," Mikulak said about competing in Greensboro. "It creates a level of gymnastics that I have to live up to for myself. I know there's going to be a big home crowd, and it's going to be fun with a tough international field."
His hectic schedule is all part of a balance Mikulak must find as a member of the U.S. Team and a collegiate athlete. He missed the team's season opener at the Windy City Invitational in Chicago while participating in a U.S. Men's National Team training camp in Beijing. With little overlap in the international and collegiate schedules, he could potentially be called to action at any point throughout the year.
"We sacrifice a lot of the NCAA meets so that he's not being overused," said Michigan Head Coach Kurt Golder, adding that he and Mikulak periodically sit down and discuss his overall training plan and goals. Golder said they only anticipate having Mikulak compete in the all-around in two collegiate meets before Michigan, and Mikulak looks to defend his Big Ten and NCAA titles in late March and April.
The balancing act is nothing new for Mikulak.
"I've been doing this ever since I was 10 years old – finding that balance," Mikulak said. "At this point, it's about prioritizing, planning. Just making sure that when I'm in the gym, I'm training in the gym. When I go home, I have to be efficient with getting my work done. And then, trying to create a healthy lifestyle for myself where I sleep enough, eat enough to recover."
Mikulak will need to have the balance perfected when he ends his collegiate career at home in Michigan's Crisler Center during the NCAA Championships, April 10-12 in Ann Arbor. As the defending champions, Michigan seeks to be the first team to win back-to-back NCAA men's gymnastics team titles since Horton led Oklahoma to two championships in 2005 and 2006.
"I think with us hosting, it puts a little more urgency to the situation," Golder said of defending the 2013 NCAA title. "The guys are taking on that challenge of repeating daily. They've been working really steady all summer and fall, every single day."
Mikulak and his Michigan teammates aren't shy about letting people know exactly what they want, frequently using the hashtag #MGymDynasty on social media.
"It really just spoke to us as a team. We weren't trying to be cocky," Mikulak said. "It's more what we're trying to accomplish. It's goal setting. You have to know what you want before you can go and get it.
"We've got one title, we plan on getting a second," added Mikulak.