- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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SAN JOSE -- Sam Mikulak stood in the tunnel, preparing to walk out into HP Pavilion as one of the 15 gymnasts competing for a spot on the Olympic team that will head to London and he turned to fellow competitor C.J. Maestas.
"We were saying to each other, 'Dude, this is insane,'" Mikulak said. "There was such a sense of pride when we walked out. This is the Olympic trials. We've come so far."
For Mikulak, there may be a whole lot further yet to go.
The 19-year-old, who won the NCAA all-around title as a freshman at Michigan last year, recognized the enormity of the moment, but he didn't let it overwhelm him. The charismatic up-and-comer can't be considered that anymore, not after his nerves-of-steel performance Thursday at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Mikulak finished with the best all-around score for the day and is third in the overall standings, behind Danell Leyva and John Oroczo heading into Saturday's final rotations.
The men are being judged based on their two performances earlier this month at nationals, as well as their two-day scores here.
But Mikulak's impressive all-around day -- he was consistently strong, finishing within the top five in five of six rotations -- puts him in pretty good position for a look at London.
The top two all-around finishers are in position to receive automatic berths on the team. The remaining three spots will be chosen by selection committee, and they have to like what they've seen so far from Mikulak.
"He's a gamer," said U.S. team veteran Jonathan Horton, who is in fourth place overall. "He just knows how to perform and that's all there is to it. He just knows how to go out there and do his job. I think it's awesome."
Mikulak, the son of two former collegiate gymnasts, has found his form after sustaining a major injury, breaking both ankles in a meet in Puerto Rico last August. Even before that, he thought he might be on track for the 2016 Games, but his ankles healed and his routines have come together in time for him to make a big splash now.
Mikulak, who grew up in Southern California and has an unmistakable laid-back vibe, has a large contingent of family and friends rooting him on, including a group of high school buddies -- he called it the Corona del Mar Alumni Club -- wearing matching tank tops that read "Team Sam." They followed Mikulak around the arena to each apparatus to cheer enthusiastically.
"It's just fun having friends that care so much," Mikulak said. "I've known them for so long. I told them, 'Just be as loud as possible.' Just being a college kid, I need that loud noise to get me pumped up."
He didn't, however, get to give input on the design of the shirt.
"I wanted them to a design of a goofy face of myself or something, but they said, 'No, Sam, that's stupid. We are doing something with the flag,'" Mikulak said. "I was good with that."
Mikulak acknowledged that while he was nervous Thursday, he didn't let his nerves get the better of him. He was the first competitor on the floor on the parallel bars and he posted a 15.700, the second-best score of the day behind Leyva. It was big weight off of him to start the biggest meet of his life, he said.
"I just had time to breath after that and think, 'All right, I didn't screw it up,'" Mikulak said.
Mikulak said he might chalk up his good day to "beginner's luck or something."
"For such a high-pressure meet, I was able to zone everything out and focus and breathe and keep control over all of my skills," he said.
Michigan coach Kurt Golder has called him the "coolest, calmest competitor I've ever had."
Mikulak was in the lead through three rotations, ahead of Leyva and Orozco; but Leyva and Orozco had their best events in front of them, and Mikulak knew that.
"I knew they were probably going to come out on top, but no worries, I'm happy about what I did," Mikulak said.
"No worries" seems to be his modus operandi.
Danell Leyva and John Orozco may have led 1-2 after the first day of the men's competition at the trials, but another gymnast you may not have expected is making an impression: Sam Mikulak.