Sam Mikulak looks to his ceiling in return from injury
Sam Mikulak wrote on a poster and attached it to his Colorado Springs bedroom ceiling, so that every time he wakes up, his eyes read a bucket list.
The U.S. Olympian said he wants to experience zero gravity, wingsuit fly and swim with sharks. All of those adventures sit below the poster’s No. 1 goal: become the world’s greatest all-around gymnast.
Mikulak, a chill, 23-year-old California native nicknamed “Hollywood” years ago, is already the best in his own country, winner of three straight U.S. all-around titles.
But he missed his chance to prove himself at the World Championships in October by partially tearing his left Achilles while training on floor exercise.
The tear was minor enough that he’s already entered in the American Cup on March 5, three months before the P&G Championships and Olympic trials.
(It’s not as serious but still reminiscent of 2011, when Mikulak broke both of his ankles on a tumbling pass one year before the London Games and, while at the University of Michigan, reportedly put the Olympic rings on a poster on his ceiling for motivation.)
So Mikulak watched on Oct. 30 as Japan’s Kohei Uchimura romped to his sixth straight World all-around title, with Cuban Manrique Larduet taking silver. A healthy Mikulak edged Larduet for the Pan American Games all-around title in July.
“I’m glad he didn’t get dethroned,” Mikulak said of Uchimura, “because I would love to do that at the 2016 Games.”
It’s certainly a tall order. Mikulak hoped he would have finished closer to Uchimura in the all-around at the 2013 and 2014 World Championships -- taking sixth and 12th in those competitions.
Before the Achilles tear, Mikulak won his third national all-around title in August, by the largest margin of victory under the nine-year-old scoring system. He said he felt better than ever.
Uchimura looked equally relaxed Oct. 30, cruising to victory by 1.634 points as the other pre-meet favorites fell.
“I think Kohei just didn’t feel the pressure from anyone this competition,” Mikulak said, “because [Ukraine’s] Oleg [Verniaiev] was definitely the one who I thought could beat him out. And he made mistakes early on in the competition [and finished fourth]. Then Kohei’s like, all right, it’s kind of easy, breezy, like let me do what I do. So I notice when he does have the pressure, he kind of makes mistakes. I kind of want to apply the pressure and make him worry.”
After Mikulak broke his ankles in 2011, he worked constantly on pommel horse to be an asset for the U.S. on the team’s weakest event and boost his chances of making it to London.
With this Achilles setback, Mikulak zoned in on his worst apparatus, still rings, in an effort to chase Uchimura in total difficulty scores.
First, the gymnast who meditates daily for 15 minutes must focus on making the five-man Olympic team at the P&G Championships and Olympic trials, both in June.
One of Mikulak’s thoughts while watching Worlds was how deep the U.S. team has become in international experience.
Not only are his four 2012 Olympic teammates training for Rio, but also five more members of the World Championships team -- Donnell Whittenburg, Alex Naddour, Brandon Wynn, Chris Brooks and Paul Ruggeri III.
Many practice with Mikulak at an Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. Mikulak, who moved there from Ann Arbor in May, is now nicknamed “Sosa” by teammates in reference to retired baseball slugger Sammy Sosa.
The U.S. men finished a decent fifth at Worlds without Mikulak and fellow injured Olympians Jacob Dalton and John Orozco. At London 2012, the U.S. also finished fifth, though that was a disappointment.
Mikulak watched the World Championships team final with optimism. The U.S. was in second place behind Japan going into the final three routines of 18 total, but they plummeted on their last rotation on pommel horse, long a dreaded apparatus for American men.
“If we had put in a couple of different guys, I think we could’ve won,” Mikulak said. “Going into pommel horse, they had the silver medal. And then, all of a sudden, Japan had their two huge falls on high bar, the very last event, and if we had a much stronger horse team, we very well could’ve been passing them up because they counted a couple of 14s, where, you know, if we had the strong horse lineup that we would want, could’ve put up some 15s and pass them up.”