Sam Mikulak enters final gymnastics season feeling fortunate that he can compete

Sam Mikulak
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Sam Mikulak has the same number of U.S. all-around titles as Simone Biles, but he’s not playing up the pursuit of a seventh crown in Fort Worth, Texas, this week.

Mikulak’s routine for months as he prepares for the final season of his gymnastics career: train, get set back by elbow or wrist problems, take one to three weeks off. Repeat.

“I can’t expect myself to exceed where I have been in previous years,” said Mikulak, a 28-year-old bidding to become the first U.S. gymnast to compete at three Olympics since Blaine Wilson in 1996, 2000 and 2004. “So I need to find gratitude with where I’m at now and the fact that I’m actually still able to compete.”

Performances at the U.S. Championships starting Thursday and, more importantly, the Olympic Trials in three weeks determine the team for Tokyo. Mikulak said last August that he plans to retire after this season, and he’s sticking to it.

“Don’t feel like you need to go and be the best in the world right now,” he told NBC Sports last week. “This meet is solely for the purpose of getting to Trials.”

MORE: U.S. Gymnastics Championships broadcast schedule

No athlete carried U.S. men’s gymnastics like Mikulak since 2013. He has been a consistent all-around medal threat — though never made the podium in that event at an Olympics or world championships — and was used on all six apparatuses in team finals at the last two worlds.

Mikulak missed significant time with left Achilles injuries in 2015 and 2017, but being forced out of the gym last year due to the coronavirus pandemic took its toll.

“WD-40 used to constantly run through me by always doing gymnastics. That went away,” he said. “All of a sudden, as I’m coming back, I’m creaking. I’m aching way more than I ever used to.”

Frequent stopping and starting exacerbated the problems. Mikulak has a bone chip floating in his right elbow that can get lodged in the joint. He treated it with cortisone injections and those intermittent breaks from training.

He estimated that he’s asked himself a dozen times why he continued to push through the pain this last year. He also waited and waited to be told he had done too much damage to his elbow to continue competing. That word never came.

So Mikulak endured with a new mindset sparked in part by the last Olympics.

In 2016 in Rio, he had the highest floor exercise score in qualifying. Mikulak was last to go in the eight-man event final. After mistakes from other medal contenders, all Mikulak needed to do was score within one tenth of his qualifying routine to win. If he scored within three tenths, he would still get a bronze, his first Olympic medal.

“This was my gold-medal moment. You couldn’t lob up a better opportunity than this,” he said. “All of a sudden, I was so close to accomplishing that goal. All the weight of the expectations of my happiness, my dreams, my little kid inside, all came crashing down on me. I panicked, and I started freaking out. And in a way, I couldn’t control my mind. I couldn’t control my heart. It was beating so fast. I blinked, and all of a sudden it was over and I had lost.

“That’s the weight that comes crashing down on you when you don’t have good self-awareness.”

Mikulak came to that realization about two months ago. He has since spoken openly about mental health, citing “a big breakdown” in 2016, feeling overwhelmed and consumed by gymnastics goals, and the fear of failing. He took part in a USA Gymnastics athlete-driven panel.

He now uses the words “rebirth” and “reinvent” and wants to continue making an impact in that space once he’s done competing.

“Something I’ve honed in on recently is not making gymnastics your identity,” said Mikulak, who met a career goal in 2018 when he won his first individual world championships medal, a high bar bronze. “Being able to say I am something else rather than I’m a gymnast is probably one of the biggest life lessons that I’ve taken through my whole mental health rediscovery.”

During the pandemic, Mikulak got engaged, with his fiancee chose Charlotte as their next home and welcomed two more dogs to the family.

“If there’s ever a time for me to finally figure out who I am without gymnastics, it’s now,” said Mikulak, the son of college gymnasts who started in the sport at age 2. “We’re going to see how that plays out for the rest of this year.”

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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IOC recommends how Russia, Belarus athletes can return as neutrals

Thomas Bach

The IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. Now, it’s up to those federations to decide if and how they will reinstate the athletes as 2024 Olympic qualifying heats up.

The IOC has not made a decision on the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes for the Paris Games and will do so “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday.

Most international sports federations for Olympic sports banned Russian and Belarusian athletes last year following IOC recommendations to do so after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bach was asked Tuesday what has changed in the last 13 months that led to the IOC updating its recommendations.

He reiterated previous comments that, after the invasion and before the initial February 2022 recommendations, some governments refused to issue visas for Russians and Belarusians to compete, and other governments threatened withdrawing funding from athletes who competed against Russians and Belarusians. He also said the safety of Russians and Belarusians at competitions was at risk at the time.

Bach said that Russians and Belarusians have been competing in sports including tennis, the NHL and soccer (while not representing their countries) and that “it’s already working.”

“The question, which has been discussed in many of these consultations, is why should what is possible in all these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any other sport?” Bach said.

Bach then read a section of remarks that a United Nations cultural rights appointee made last week.

“We have to start from agreeing that these states [Russia and Belarus] are going to be excluded,” Bach read, in part. “The issue is what happens with individuals. … The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s Tuesday recommendations included not allowing “teams of athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return.

If Russia continues to be excluded from team sports and team events, it could further impact 2024 Olympic qualification.

The international basketball federation (FIBA) recently set an April 28 deadline to decide whether to allow Russia to compete in an Olympic men’s qualifying tournament. For women’s basketball, the draw for a European Olympic qualifying tournament has already been made without Russia.

In gymnastics, the ban has already extended long enough that, under current rules, Russian gymnasts cannot qualify for men’s and women’s team events at the Paris Games, but can still qualify for individual events if the ban is lifted.

Gymnasts from Russia swept the men’s and women’s team titles in Tokyo, where Russians in all sports competed for the Russian Olympic Committee rather than for Russia due to punishment for the nation’s doping violations. There were no Russian flags or anthems, conditions that the IOC also recommends for any return from the current ban for the war in Ukraine.

Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, said last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned from track and field for the “foreseeable future.”

World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, said after the IOC’s updated recommendations that it will continue to “consider developments impacting the situation” of Russian and Belarusian athletes and that “further updates will be provided when appropriate.”

The IOC’s sanctions against Russia and Belarus and their governments remain in place, including disallowing international competitions to be held in those countries.

On Monday, Ukraine’s sports minister said in a statement that Ukraine “strongly urges” that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned.

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