Catching up with USA gymnasts Sam Mikulak, Donnell Whittenburg
These interviews were conducted in February, before the U.S. Men’s Olympic team for the 2016 Rio Olympics was decided in June. Sam Mikulak and John Orozco made the team, while Donnell Whittenburg did not make the cut.
Ahead of the AT&T American Cup, the first international gymnastics competition of the season leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics in August, SI.com caught up with Sam Mikulak and Donnell Whittenburg at the U.S. Olympic Training Facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Before they compete at the American Cup in Newark, N.J. on March 5, the two Olympic hopefuls discussed injuries, experiences at the London Olympics, training regimens, their strongest disciplines and more with SI.com's Stefanie Gordon.
The son of gymnasts, Sam Mikulak began gymnastics at the age of two. In 2011 he was the NCAA men’s gymnastics all-around champion while attending the University of Michigan. Mikulak is eyeing his second appearance on the U.S. Olympic team and recently came back from an Achilles injury to win the Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas. (A fun fact about Mikylak: He has a pommel horse skill named after him.)
Stefanie Gordon: Late last year you injured your Achilles, but just came back and won at the Winter Cup Challenge. Fair to say you’re back to 100%?
Sam Mikulak: No, I still did watered down routines on floor and vault because some landings are a deeper impact than I’m ready for. But as I was competing I got a little more confidence in my ankle so hopefully soon I’ll be a little more than what I was leading into the Winter Cup this weekend at the American Cup Championship.
SG: How did your performance in London change the way you trained and how you approach competitions?
SM: It gave me more confidence. Being able to compete on that Olympic stage is unparalleled on the scale of pressure. So anything beyond that, I felt like I could always handle it. The one takeaway I got from it is, I’ve been there. I’m experienced. How can I plan four years with this experience to mold myself into the gymnast I want to be?
SG: What would you say is your strongest discipline?
SM: My best event is probably… it actually varies day by day. But the high bar, it’s the most fun for me. A lot of people like it. It’s risky and dangerous. I like the adrenaline rush.
SG: What is a typical training day like for you here? What’s your training and diet regiment like?
SM: It’s pretty strict, especially living here. I eat five times a day, smaller meals, balancing my protein to carbs. Spacing my diet with what I have to do for one day that might be a lot of routines. I’ll eat more for that morning. It’s very detailed.
SG: What has been your biggest challenge as a gymnast?
SM: It’s been staying healthy. That’s probably the hardest part. There’s been so many injuries and it’s so easy for even a small injury to cause a big problem. But the way I get past it is get back in the training room, ice it and tape it. I think gymnasts of my age have been through so many injuries that we know how our body works and how to piece it all back together.
SG: To follow up on that, as you’ve gotten older, have you changed the way you train?
SM: Yes, I train way smarter. Back in the day I could take more turns and not really think. Now I know how to effectively train. I prioritize certain things. I’ve changed my whole perspective on gymnastics into percentages instead of numbers and that’s the biggest change before college until now.
SG: You’re active on social media, do you think you use it more as self-promotion or a way to keep your friends and family updated on your life?
SM: I think I do it more for self-promotion. If I want to talk to my family or friends I’ll just call them. They do see my social media posts, and they, as well as my fans, get to interact. Social media is just a great outlet to share and let them know what my life is like leading up to the most anticipating competition of my life.
SG: What has been your favorite place to visit?
SM: The No. 1 place I’ve visited so far was Antwerp, Belgium. That was one of the coolest cities I’ve ever seen. Every day I woke up I felt like I was in a movie.
SG: Do you think the spotlight is on you to make the team again?
SM: Definitely. I think all the guys returning from the 2012 Olympic team have a spotlight on them because of that veteran Olympic mindset that they’ve acquired from the last games will definitely come in handy.
SG: Do you think it’s to your advantage that you already know what you need to do and what to expect going in?
SM: Definitely. There’s a complete edge. The mysteriousness and bewilderment that is the Olympics when you haven’t seen it versus planning for the bewilderment that you already saw.
Donnell Whittenburg is a 21-year-old gymnast from Baltimore, Md., who first competed in the Men’s Junior Olympic National Championships in 2006. In 2015 he won the silver medal for floor exercise, still rings and vault. This weekend at the American Cup Championship, Whittenburg, an avid drummer, will look to make his first Olympic team
SG: How did you get involved in gymnastics?
Donnell Whittenburg: I got involved in competitive gymnastics when I was about seven years old. Before that I did a lot of backyard gymnastics and my mom was scared that I would get hurt so she put me in classes.
SG: Was it “love at first sight”?
DW: Yeah. It’s a safe environment where I can do a bunch of cool stuff.
SG: When did you move from Baltimore to Colorado Springs?
DW: I moved here in 2013 when I was 18. I decided to move because I was in college there and told my professor I would have to miss classes for an international competition. When she told me missing classes meant I probably wouldn’t pass, I called Vitaly [Marinitch, men’s gymnastics coach] and told him I was moving here and would do online classes.
SG: How has training with athletes who have already been to the Olympics motivated you?
DW: We’ve been friends for so long that just having them here to motivate me helps my confidence that much more because I know that I am one of the best in the world, and I know that I can definitely hold my own in this sport. It’s great to see my own progress in this sport so far.
SG: What would you say is your strongest discipline?
DW: I would have to say vault, since I medaled (bronze) on it at the World Championships last year.
SG: You won gold (team medal) and silver (floor exercise, still rings and vault) at the Pan American Games and bronze (vault) at the World Championships last year, did that motivate you even more for the Olympics?
DW: For me, I try not to think about the Olympics that much, just so I can keep a clear head and focus on the present which is the American Cup because I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But when that time comes up then my mindset will change to get ready for the games.
In a year that included the hardship of a torn Achilles and the heartbreak of losing his mother, John Orozco, 23, was more determined than ever to come back and make his second Olympic team. Sports Illustrated caught up with Orozco at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado in February to discuss his injury and his approach to making the 2016 team.
SG: You tore your Achilles back in June of 2015 and then you competed for the first time since then at the beginning of February?
I competed at the Houston Invitational but I performed a very watered down floor set and vault for one day. It was the first of the official competitions that I came back and did it two days in a row.
SG: You posted on Facebook that you were disappointed that finished fourth in Houston, but then you remembered that a month before you couldn't dismount.
JO: I couldn't even land.
SG: Was it fair to say the competition was bittersweet?
JO: For me, it more sweet than anything. I think this point I have to start congratulating myself for things I think I should deserve to pat myself on the back for. A lot of times I would still not think I'm good enough or still think this isn't where I want to be. Which is always want to have in the back of your mind. But you always have to have to have those moments where you say "You know what? Considering everything I've been through, I did pretty good.' I'm on the right track. And now I need to get in the gym and work harder. You can't be all negative all the time. It's something I'm learning.
SG: How did you modify your training when you have an injury?
JO:It's very stressful mentally because, you know you can do the skills you've been doing for years. But you have to train to be comfortable in competition, even if you have done the skills for years. You have to keep training. Mentally it's stressful. When I get to the meet, I know that my body knows what to do and then I just really go for you. You can't be apprehensive. You have to go for it 100%. Because if you don't, that's how you hurt yourself.
SG: How has your training regiment changed as you've gotten older?
JO:For me, I try to train very smart now because I tried training hard and it's not working for me. Floor and vault are my weakest events so when I was training for the Pan American games, I was training on the vault and floor twice as much as the other events just to get them up to par, with my strong events. I realized that my body can't handle it. I have to go to recovery before and after every practice. I have to do my rehab exercises before I warm up. It's very tedious, but it's worth it.
SG: What is recovery?
JO:It's warming up with a soft tissue massage, working with a trainer. After, it's more for icing, there's sleeves that compresses air to reduce any swelling.
SG: You're pretty active on social media, do you use it more as self-promotion or as a way to keep friends and family updated on what you're doing.
JO:It's a little of both. I think Olympians, in general, are viewed as these amazing athletes and they have amazing lives because they get to travel and do this amazing stuff, but the truth is the funding for US Olympic athletes isn't as much as people think it is, so a lot of sponsors and endorsers are on social media are looking for someone who is popular on social media so some of my posts are geared towards that. But mostly it's to keep everyone updated on what I'm doing because you can't text a million people all of the time.
SG: How did your performance in London change the way you approach competition?
JO: Right after London I don't think I really looked into what happened and looked into how am I going to change now. I think it happened after I tore my ACL. Which was on tour after the Olympics. After I recovered and came back from that to make the 2013 World Team and I medaled there, which was my first world medal. That's when I realized this is how I have to train from now on because I knew I was getting older and the sport is getting harder, and I have to be very strategic with my training.
SG: How did you get into gymnastics?
JO:I got into gymnastics when I was 8 years old. My dad got me into it. I was doing Tae Kwon Do for a few years before and he noticed I would try to do flips during my performances and he took me into a gym in Manhattan (Orozco is from The Bronx) called Sutton Gym. I went to my first try out lesson and I was younger than the tryouts. But my dad said "Take a look at him. You’ll see he's great." I came in and had a great day. I ran in there and I did everything I knew I could. The owner had a meeting with the other parents because he knew that at that time in our lives, my family's financial struggles were very apparent and he offered to have me to train there free of any expenses. My dad just knew. Gymnastics has catapulted me to parts of the world that I never even dreamed of going.
SG: Where in The Bronx are you from?
JO:For people who don't really know the area, I'm from the South Bronx. If you're a Bronxite, or know the area, then Soundview. It's all the way down by the water.
SG: Do you think the spotlight is on you to make the Olympic team again?
JO:I think so. it's an added pressure. But it's different because you know what you're doing now and what to expect from the media, the committee, my coach, myself and my teammates. You know how the process goes. And you know what you need to do. I'm a little more prepared. It's not as much of an overwhelming exp.
SG: Lastly, give us one non-gymnastics fact about you.
JO:I love to sing. I love pop music and pop culture. I idolize John Legend. He's one of my favorite singers. I think when I’m done with gymnastics, I want to have a career in the entertainment industry. I love acting too. I've been on a few episodes of Law & Order. It's so much fun. It's great to be around creative people who want to make art, whether it's with acting or music.