ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) - "I've been in the gym since I was 2-years-old going to Mommy and Me classes. I remember saying, 'Ohhhh, I want to go to the Olympics,'" Sam Mikulak told 24 Hour News 8.
Mikulak is one solid performance away from realizing that dream, and if he does, he'll be the first Michigan gymnast ever to make the US men's Olympic team.
"I don't even think words can describe that feeling," he said. "Can't even think about it. If I get there and be the first Michigan gymnast to go to the Olympics I'd probably cry. I'm not going to lie. That's kind of how intense the feelings are for this."
Watch Mikulak in the gym for five minutes and you'll see why the Olympics are not a pipe dream. He clearly loves what he's doing, and by the ease with which he does it, he's clearly very talented.
He was talented enough to win the NCAA championship his freshman year at U-M, but it was his failure to repeat that inspired him to new heights -- first at the Visa Championships and now at the Olympic trials.
"The performance I had at NCAA was that little bit of motivation where it was, you know, I've got to make the next few weeks count. I didn't do what I wanted here at NCAAs. Now, let's step it up and redeem myself. And this is kind of a bigger thing to redeem myself with."
You might think putting that kind of pressure on himself would backfire, but these days Mikulak is as cool as ever. This pressure is nothing new. When you compete at this level for this prize, you have to learn to feed off the pressure or be swallowed up by it.
"I just have reminders everywhere, on my locker, I have goals that our team wrote, everybody is writing skills. I wrote, 'Make the Olympic team. I wake up and I have the Olympic rings on my roof. So I'm always in the gym trying to make that feeling of the biggest pressure that i can."
As the Associated Press reported, Dannell Leyva moved into the overall lead in the race for London on Thursday, but it was Sam Mikulak who won the first day of the Olympic trials. The 19-year-old who oozes California cool finished with 91.8 points, edging Leyva by a mere 0.1 points. John Orozco, who beat Leyva for the U.S. title earlier this month, was third.
Mikulak has been one to watch since claiming the NCAA title as a freshman at Michigan. But he never had a shot at last year's world championships team after breaking both his ankles at a meet in Puerto Rico. His rehab set him back several months, and the legs remained so tender it wasn't until recently that coach Kurt Golder let his precocious star bust loose.
But look at him now. Cheered on by a raucous bunch of friends wearing "Team Sam" T-shirts — complete with Mikulak's picture — and moving around the arena with every event, Mikulak let everyone know from the start that he cannot be overlooked. His parallel bars routine was exquisite, filled with difficult skills and combinations but done with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker.
His handstands were so still he could have been a model for an art class, and when he hit the mat with an emphatic thump, the low-key Golder pumped his fists. His score of 15.7 included a 9.5 execution mark that would be matched by only one other person the rest of the day.
He had the crowd oohing and aahing with his acrobatic high bar routine, and he displayed cat-like reflexes on floor exercise. Looking as if he was about to go out of bounds on one of his tumbling passes, his toes almost seemed to pull back into his feet to keep him safely in bounds.
His only real "flaw" was on pommel horse, where he stalled before his dismount. But he managed to hang on, and walked off the podium with a grin.
"I was just able to zone everything out, breathe and keep control over all my skills," Mikulak said.
He was so in the zone he didn't even realize he'd finished ahead of Leyva and Orozco, the last two U.S. champions.
"What?" Mikulak said when Horton told him. "Seriously?"
"Kid's a gamer," Horton said. "He just knows how to perform. That's all there is to it. He just knows how to go out there and do his job."
Indeed, Mikulak was able to keep his cool while the high stakes seemed to get the best of his more seasoned competitors.
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