American star Mikulak looking for international breakthrough
The most important 15 minutes of Sam Mikulak's daily routine doesn't come in the gym or the weight room. They usually take place early in the morning, shortly after he pulls himself out of bed at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
There in the stillness, the best American male gymnast of his generation turns his mind into a blank slate. Nothing is allowed in. Not worries about whether he can find a way to combine consistency with his considerable talent. Not concerns about the ankles that are always one iffy landing away from disaster. Not the stakes as he prepares himself for another Olympic moment, one with significantly higher stakes than four years ago in London.
''If a thought comes into my head, I recognize it and I do a mental swipe left with my eyes,'' Mikulak said. ''And then I'm back to breathing and fall into a rhythm that can train me to negate any thoughts that aren't necessary when I'm competing on the big stage.''
Like the one that awaits in Brazil, when the 23-year-old spearheads a five-man U.S. team eager to re-establish itself after a nightmarish fifth-place finish in 2012. Back then, Mikulak was a teenager, a college student and an event specialist. Now he's likely the only American competing in the all-around, a testament to the way he's separated himself from his teammates.
Yet for all his supremacy at home, where he is one of two men to win four straight national titles, Mikulak has yet to experience a true breakthrough moment internationally. He has just one world championship medal to his credit, a team bronze in 2014. That also happens to be the last time he was on the floor with Kohei Uchimura of Japan, the defending Olympic champion heavily favored to do it again in Rio de Janeiro.
On the surface, they could not be more different. Uchimura is soft-spoken and reserved. Mikulak is prone to break into dance during a meet and speaks in a ''surfer dude'' cadence that betrays his Southern California roots.
Yet their gymnastics are strikingly similar in their aggressive quest for elegance.
''I feel like I'm following in his footsteps a little bit,'' Mikulak said. ''He's one of the greatest gymnasts of all time. It's nice to be on the same path. My goal is to apply a little pressure.''
The only surefire way to do it is to avoid the small but persistent mistakes that tend to pop up early in competitions. Mikulak is well aware of his penchant for shaky starts like the one he endured on the opening night of Olympic Trials on June 25, when he flubbed his dismount on parallel bars and lost momentum on high bar.
Not that it mattered in the end. Mikulak finished with his typical flourish and ultimately wound up well clear of Chris Brooks following four rounds of Olympic qualifying that spanned trials and the national championships.
It's where Mikulak expected to be all along. Still, he knows he's at the time in his career when simply being the best among his buddies is no longer enough.
''The mindset going into the Olympics is I'm not a top dog in the international scene like I am in the U.S.,'' he said. ''There is a gap I need to overcome.''
Going ''six for six'' - meaning getting through each apparatus clean - would be a start. Asked when the last time he put together a day like that, Mikulak points to the 2013 American Cup while simultaneously shaking his head in disbelief.
''It's been a while,'' he allowed. ''I need that sense of urgency that I crave at the end, I need that in the beginning.''
Nowhere do Mikulak's problems manifest themselves more than on high bar, gymnastics' answer to a slam-dunk contest. Sitting nine feet off the floor, it's an inviting canvas on which to paint. And when he's on, Mikulak can turn it into a thrill ride.
The problem is, Mikulak isn't always on. At the 2014 world championships, coach Mark Williams benched Mikulak on high bar during the team final, opting for Jake Dalton's more conservative - and more dependable - set.
It's a decision Mikulak understood and why he comes to each meet now armed with three different high-bar routines, opting for the easiest during qualifying and saving the most difficult for the event final if he makes it that far.
Call it a sign of maturity for an athlete who admits to putting too much pressure on himself to be perfect, something he's realized over the years is a futile pursuit. Now he searches for small moments of bliss during a given routine while trying to immediately hit ''delete'' when something doesn't go as planned.
That's where the meditation comes in, something he began incorporating while competing at Michigan. A psychology major, Mikulak found himself fascinated by the mind's power to control the body not just by telling it what to do, but by telling it what not to do. It's gotten to the point where he's on autopilot the second he raises his hand to the judges.
''The breathing is what does it,'' he said. ''It blocks out anything that might tell you, `Oh tighten up.' Or if there's a negative thought that will pop up when you're up there, the breathing will not let that thought come into your mind.''
So Mikulak zones out, his ears listening for the encouragement of his teammates but nothing else. Leave no doubt: They have his back. They'd love nothing more than to see the guy who occasionally amazes during practice do the same thing for the whole world to see.
''He needs to go out there and handle that pressure, own the pressure and move on from there,'' good friend and Olympic alternate Donnell Whittenburg said. ''If he can hit, he can definitely give Uchimura a run.''
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP