By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT

Sam Mikulak has faced setback after setback since Rio. Finally recovered and ready to return to the all-around, Mikulak is looking forward to 2018 Worlds and beyond.

Feature Photo by Grace Chiu

Not since the likes of John Roethlisberger has the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Team seen an athlete compete in three Olympic Games. Many have done two and have had 10-12 year international careers. Sam Mikulak is on his way to adding Tokyo 2020 to his 2012 and 2016 Olympic experiences, and to, hopefully, help the U.S. men’s team to rise above just-off-the-podium finishes. The four-time U.S. Men’s All-Around Champion is ready to roll again.

Mikulak is no stranger to injuries, having missed Worlds in 2015 due to an ankle injury. In 2016, he had ankle and achilles surgery for the first time. However, last year, when he tore his left Achilles tendon, it was an injury that sat on a timeline that could be conquered: recover through the summer, have a good showing at nationals and keep pushing after Worlds to be full force by December. Indeed, his patience worked. By Christmas, Mikulak was back to tumbling and landing with confidence, ready to take on the 2018 season.

“Injured tore Achilles came back really fast, [competing] high bar and pommels at nationals last year. I made the Worlds team completely unexpected. I didn’t do as well as I wanted, doing high bar and falling in qualifications. I was down about that, but I made some changes in my routine since and used that experience to learn. That performance fueled me going in to Winter Cup, PacRims in Columbia and Tokyo competition. At PacRims, I won all-around there and posted a really high score. I felt polished, too. Since then, I’ve been trying to stay healthy and keep my confidence up.  I stayed in routine shape the entire time and felt like this was a great way to not have to dip down and back up again.”

Living in Colorado and training at the Olympic Training Center alongside many of the other current national team members helps. The constant support of the coaches and leadership is obvious. The state-of-the-art medical care is always available, and the sunshine of his native California is a quick plane ride away.

“What we have at the OTC is amazing,” Mikulak stated. “Our lives have been happy. I moved out of the OTC, got a puppy and am just a lot happier now with a change of things, and my girlfriend moved from Cali! I am progressing in life outside of the sport as well.”

As for that quick ride home? He only takes it when there’s time. Right now, the focus is in the gym.

“I haven’t been back [home] since Thanksgiving. When I do go home to Cali, I go straight to the beach. Hopefully after Worlds I’ll get a chance to make a trip and relax a bit.”

Mikulak is aware of the adversity in the sport right now, with a loss of sponsors and a buzz that is not always shining a positive light on gymnastics. Because the men tend to be older at their peak, many of them move to Colorado to train together and often rely on each other and the camaraderie to pull them through tough times, both individually and as a group.

“We came through this by focusing on what we can control, which is performing to the best of our abilities,” Mikulak said. “We feel a lack of sponsors, but we just want to continue to do the sport.”

Training has ramped up for the men in the past few weeks, focusing on routine readiness. With that, of course, comes full completion of all six events, pushing the limits of exertion and endurance.

“The weeks leading up to sationals are hard,” Mikulak said. “I had a bit of a back issue this week, jammed it up doing a dismount on floor. I’ve been getting needling and cupping and more done all week and it has been helping a lot. I was able to get through all six before I left for Boston. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave me confidence and peace of mind that I would be able to get through this week for sure.”

Of course, the best laid plans sometimes take a small detour. With the new Code of Points in place since after the 2016 Olympics, upgrades are the word of the week–watching to see who has added them, and who can perform those upgrades well.

“My upgrades include adding a Nechama on rings and flare spindles on floor. I took out some others because of the back that were in the works,” Mikulak explained.  “I was trying to do a Makutz on p-bars, but it still bothered my back, so for now, it is out. I kept my triple full on floor for dismount which was fine.”

With years of competition comes experience. Mikulak competed in his first international meet in 2009. Almost 3,000 practices later, his discipline in the gym is one of the things that sets him apart from the field.

“I tell myself that I have a lot of practice to rely on,” Mikulak said. “I have done thousands of routines and missing the week before isn’t going to change the practice that I have done and the work that has laid the foundation.”

Mikulak is looking forward to the week, and the challenge, despite the small back issue.

“I think it will be a tough competition with Yul [Moldauer] and Akash [Modi] around,” Mikulak said.  “It is still about who shows up the most that day and who is prepared the most. My real goal is to hit all 12 routines.”

With the support of his family in Boston, including girlfriend Mia, and with eyes on World Championships in Qatar in a mere nine weeks, Mikulak is ready to return to the top.