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.”
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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