ST. LOUIS – After nearly a decade as America’s top male gymnast, Sam Mikulak said he immediately felt relieved on Saturday when he made his third Olympic team.
“Oh my God, I did it,” he said later, explaining the joy that overwhelmed him when he heard his name call him when he was one of the gymnasts standing. making it to the Tokyo Games.
Six-time national all-around champion Mikulak a year ago never imagined joining fellow Americans Brody Malone, Yul Moldauer, Shane Wiskus and Alec Yoder in this year’s Olympic team.
Mikulak, from Newport Coast, Calif., Had fallen into a depression and struggled with mental health issues when the Tokyo Games were postponed, he said. The dramatic schedule change left him lost and panicked about his place in the world, especially with no gymnastics to give him a goal.
With the help of mental health professionals, including a therapist and a sports psychologist, Mikulak, 28, said he finally understood that his self-esteem was unrelated to his athletic performance. It was also reflected in the fact that his happiness did not depend on his perfection, although perfection is something that gymnastics demands. This awareness is what catapulted him to the top of his sport.
“I’m so happy to be here,” he said, adding that he was no longer obsessed with winning. “I think that was the big change. “
Sam Mikulak’s era is almost over, he said. He is retiring at the end of this year and has recognized that Malone is not only the future of sport but also its present. Malone’s performances over the past few months lend credence to this idea. Meanwhile, Malone, 21, of Summerville, Ga., Won his second all-around NCAA National Championship, with Stanford. He also won the United States National Championship and finished first on both days of the Olympic Trials.
Malone won the trials on Saturday far ahead of Yul Moldauer, 24, of Arvada, Colo., Second, and Shane Wiskus, 22, of Spring Park, Minn., Third. Malone and Moldauer clinched the guaranteed two spots on the Olympic team, while Wiskus and Mikulak were chosen by a US gymnastics committee.
Additionally, 24-year-old Alec Yoder of Indianapolis was selected to compete for the additional Olympic spot the United States won through their performance at the Senior Pan American Championships earlier this month. He will be a specialist in the event, on the pommel horse, and will not compete in the team event.
The main four-man team has a mix of personalities and experience: Mikulak is the veteran who practices mindfulness and gratitude on a daily basis. Malone is the calm and unfazed newcomer. Moldauer is the fiery, vocal cheerleader. Wiskus, the epitome of resilience.
Brett McClure, the men’s high performance team coordinator, called Malone a “stallion” after the trials.
“He just looked unwavering,” he said of Malone, who barely showed any emotion as he switched from gear to apparatus and dominated the Olympic trials.
Moldauer, however, is anything but stoic. His positive energy can’t be contained – he’s known to give break dancing lessons at parties – and McClure has said he appreciates the motivation of the gymnasts around him.
In practice, Moldauer finished each event by pumping his arms, dancing and shouting at the crowd like he had just won a gold medal.
“I always try to bring the hype,” he said. “I want my team to feel the energy that makes them excel.”
For Wiskus, being a part of the Olympic team has shown how he can excel and bounce back even in the toughest of adversity. When he heard his name called to be on the team, he cried because he was so overwhelmed.
He couldn’t make up the story of what he had been through recently, he said, even if he tried. His season at the University of Minnesota was cut short last year and he was relegated to practicing gymnastics in his backyard and then at local gyms. Finally back on the Minnesota campus, the university cut its men’s gymnastics program. He had been around for 118 years and had managed to produce remarkable gymnasts, like Wiskus, even though there was not enough room in his gymnasium for a full-size gymnastics floor.
Then, at the Nationals this month, Wiskus fell off the high bar three times – silencing the worrying crowd – before he finally finished his routine. He came back with a strong performance in practice to prove that the American team could count on him.
“I just went through the bell,” Wiskus said. “I told myself that I had lived enough. I am ready to show what I can do.
Together, the team’s goal will be to win the first Olympic gymnastics medal for American men in 13 years. The last time the team made it to the podium at the Olympics was when they won a bronze medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing. McClure, who helped the US men’s team to a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, said it wouldn’t be easy to break that streak this year.
The US team has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic as the closures have resulted in the closure of universities across the country, he said, and many of his national team athletes have trained at universities.
“Looking at China, Russia and Japan, they all bubbled up immediately and were able to stay together and continue their training, and we couldn’t,” said McClure. “So it was hard.”
The team, however, can turn to Mikulak for advice on how to handle the pressure of the Olympics and find a way to at least perform well. He has competed in two Olympics, and both of these men’s teams finished fifth in the team competitions. In 2012 Mikulak finished fifth in vault. In 2016, he finished fourth on high bar.
His teammates have said they would like nothing more than to end his career with “some gear,” Moldauer said, referring to an Olympic medal or two. And they hope to help him do it.
When considering advice he could share with his teammates, who are all first-time Olympians, Mikulak said he would warn them against internalizing other people’s expectations. Just do the gymnastics for yourself, he said, and don’t put the pressure on yourself.
“I wish someone had said me that, ”he said.