Commentary

Mikulak reaches 2012 games

Ankle injury sidelined U-M star at Olympic trials

Updated: July 25, 2012, 10:47 AM ET
By Chantel Jennings | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Seventeen years had built up to this moment. The summers of endless practices when his friends were on the Californian beach, the functions he had missed for meets, the ice baths and muscle wraps had all been for this moment -- the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials.

For 17 years, Sam Mikulak had waited for this time. He had waited for this morning, this pre-meet breakfast, this pomp and circumstance before the final day of rotations.

For more than 6,200 days -- he had thought about this day, worked for this moment and done everything in his power to be here.

[+] EnlargeSam Mikulak
AP Photo/Jae C. HongSam Mikulak has been an All-American six times during his career at Michigan.
He is a control freak, in the best way possible. And now he was here, on this day, and he had no control.

With his left ankle in a wrap he sat and watched as the other hopefuls -- who had thought about this moment for just as long -- competed for spots on the Olympic team.

Mikulak's ankle injury, suffered during the first day of competition, kept him from all but the pommel horse on day two.

"It was so stressful because I had to say, 'Hopefully what I have done so far has been enough,' " Mikulak said. "I couldn't sleep. That was the most stressful time of my entire life. You don't want to have to hope in one of those moments."

He had finished the Olympic trial prelims in first place, holding on to a .100 lead over Danell Leyva. And now he watched as Leyva flew through events. Then there was John Orozco and a handful of others gymnasts he'd have to worry about.

This is the part of sports Mikulak hated. He despised not being able to control his fate. It was what had steered him away from baseball and soccer, sports his parents (both former gymnasts) had enrolled him in as a child.

For the hyper-competitive Mikulak, those sports just didn't work. If he were a goalie, he couldn't be sure his team would score. If he were on first base, he couldn't make sure the batter didn't hit a home run.

"You couldn't control other peoples' action to get a victory," Mikulak said. "And sometimes you lost because players didn't do their best. I didn't like the feeling of not being completely accountable."

Eventually, he turned to gymnastics, where he had naturally excelled and could be in full control.

During his freshman year at the University of Michigan he was able to steer clear of any serious injuries, control his routines and win a national championship. In his second season, he finished runner-up.

The pressure of those huge meets never got to him because he knew if he did his best, he'd have the ability to win.

And as good as Mikulak is at controlling his body, he's even better at controlling his mind, Michigan teammate Jordan Gaarenstroom explained. The two have known each other since grade school, and trained together at the same California gym since they were 12. When the two decided to come to Michigan together, Gaarenstroom saw Mikulak mature mentally in his first year, fighting little battles before becoming an NCAA Champion.

And now, Mikulak was stuck in a chair watching other competitors control their dreams while fighting off his own doubts.

"I just kept thinking, 'This is not what I need right now, I can't be dropped,' " Mikulak said. "I have another day of competition in me. The committee might think this will bring me down if I do make it to the games.' … It just seemed like all the bad things were happening at once."

Leyva and Orozco took the top two spots, earning automatic bids. With Mikulak's one-rotation score on day two, he had earned himself a score on the day of 14.4, 0 -- 70 points behind the nearest competitor. Finishing dead last in 15th.

The final three spots (and all alternate positions) would be determined by a five-person selection committee and Mikulak hoped his first-day showing was strong enough.

But there was nothing he could do. So Mikulak waited, and waited.

"He was really calm," Gaarenstroom said. "He's great at controlling his mind, just pushing all those negative thoughts out of his head."

Eventually, the gymnasts were pulled into a room for the final meeting. Leyva and Orozco were congratulated and then they started reading names.

"Three spots," Mikulak thought. "I can get one."

Third member, the committee announced: Jake Dalton.

[+] EnlargeTeam Sam
Courtesy of Jordan GaarenstroomMikulak has a cheering section, known as "Team Sam" that traveled to the trials and will be in London.
Dalton had edged out Mikulak at the 2012 NCAA Championships in the all-around. He had been on the U.S. team for the 2011 World Championships.

"Two spots," Mikulak thought. "I can get one."

Fourth member, the committee announced: Jonathan Horton

Horton was a veteran, a three-time All-American Cup all-around champion, a five-time World Championships team member and a three-time NCAA team championship member at Oklahoma.

"One spot," Mikulak thought as he dropped his head, staring at the ankle that had sidelined him for the day. "I can get this."

"My life was kind of flashing before my eyes," Mikulak said. "My heart was racing. My palms got sweaty. I was tapping my foot. I started thinking about all the bad things that could've happened."

Fifth member, the committee announced: Sam Mikulak.

Even with a bum ankle he jumped up and down, nearly flipped down the hall, ran to his parents and jumped some more. He was going to London, to the 2012 Olympic games, representing his country -- every goal he had set for himself as a child.

"Seeing him run out of the room, it was so cool," Gaarenstroom said. "He has worked his entire life for this and I got to see him go from step one to where he is now. ... I did tear up a bit, I won't lie. I was pretty emotional.

"But there was never a doubt in my mind from the day I met him that he wouldn't go to the Olympics. I knew it from the get-go."

Team member or not, the trainers had ordered him not to push his body, not to stress his ankle. They wanted to get him back into rehab immediately and take care of more icing and wraps.

But his ankle could wait. He would savor this. He had waited 17 years for this moment.