Underdog USA; Mikulak leads young core to 2018 worlds

FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2018, file photo, Sam Mikulak competes on the rings at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, in Boston. The U.S. men's gymnastics team brings a slew of new faces to the 2018 world championships and a new role as decided underdogs. Reaching the podium and locking up a spot in the 2020 Olympics will be a long shot for a group that includes five-time national champion Sam Mikulak.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Sam Mikulak is done trying to search for the right words to say. It wasn’t always that way.

For long stretches in his career, the best American gymnast of his generation felt the need to project an air of Southern California cool, a persona he cultivated throughout an uneven international career in which the results have only occasionally matched his tantalizing talent.

Mikulak would brush off mounting frustration with his health or his form — and sometimes both — with a smile and a laugh.

“I always thought I needed to be like ‘I’m keeping it mellow, keeping it chill,'” Mikulak said.

Only inside, the five-time national champion was roiling, constantly second-guessing himself when big meets — two Olympics and three world championships among them — would come and go without the breakthrough he believed was coming.

“There were a lot of things where I was trying to be as perfect as I can,” Mikulak said. “It’s tough when you’ve trained as hard as you can, you push yourself to a point where you’re dieting and doing everything you think a perfect Olympic athlete would do. It creates an idea that you’re unstoppable and then if things don’t go your way, all you can think about is ‘Could I have done something different?'”

The gymnast who has won just about everything there is to win in the United States has just one major international medal: a team bronze he helped the Americans capture in 2014, the last time the U.S. men’s program reached the podium.

At 26, the clock is ticking, at least a little. Yet Mikulak believes he’s in a good place heading into the 2018 world championships. The Americans head onto the floor at Aspire Academy in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday morning searching for a spot in the team finals and maybe — they believe — an outside shot at finishing in the top 3, which would assure them of a spot in the 2020 Olympics.

How that part of the equation goes depends a lot on Mikulak, by far the most experienced competitor on the five-man team that includes 2017 national champion Yul Moldauer, 2016 Olympic alternate Yul Moldauer and Colin Van Wicklen and Alec Yoder, both of whom are making first international starts for Team USA.

The group represents a serious youth movement by the Americans. The majority of the group that finished fifth in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics has retired, leaving Mikulak as the de facto old man. And in some ways, he is. Over the last few years he’s moved out of the Olympic Training Center and in with his girlfriend and adopted a puppy, part of the maturation process that’s helped give his life some much-needed balance.

“I feel more like a normal person nowadays,” Mikulak said.

Ask him what he does when he’s not at the gym and he offers a very Mikulak response.

“Just be a slob and watch Netflix,” he said with a laugh.

Still, on the competition floor Mikulak understands the challenge ahead if the U.S. wants its revamped program to take a significant step forward. He believes the addition of fresh faces will help.

There complaints the program grew stale between the 2012 and 2016 as the core that ended up fifth in London six years ago largely stayed together in the run-up to Rio Olympics. The top six or seven gymnasts knew who they were and knew their spots were safe barring injury.

That’s not the case anymore. The team Mikulak will lead onto the floor on Saturday doesn’t have the most extensive resume. He’s not sure that’s a bad thing.

“No one has accomplished what that they’ve wanted to accomplish,” Mikulak said. “There hasn’t been anything like ‘I’m better than everyone.'”

Not by a long shot. While Mikulak embraces the energy the younger guys bring, it also creates a bit of a math problem. The Americans don’t have the most difficult routines, meaning they have to make up for it by doing their sets cleaner than the opposition.

Mikulak admits for the U.S. to finish in the top 3 at least one team — and possibly more — will need to have a bad day or two. Yet both he and Moldauer pointed to the U.S.’s extended experience at the NCAA level as proof they can thrive when things get tight.

“We know how to hit under pressure,” said Moldauer. “We can’t let the surrounding of worlds or surrounding of world-class gymnasts get to our heads.”

And that includes not being happy simply just to make the team, though Moldauer has plenty to be thankful for after spending the better part of a year dealing with cracked vertebrae that caused spinal fluid — or as Moldauer called it “juice” — to leak out during a particularly hard landing. Healthy now — or at least, as healthy as can be expected — Moldauer is ready to help Mikulak kick start what they hope is an American renaissance.

“We know we’re not as strong as we can be,” Moldauer said. “But watching each other at (selection) camp, we looked at each other and we believe we can be on podium.”

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