Mikulak aims for Rio: ‘You want to beat everyone at their best’

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (WOOD) — Sam Mikulak is America’s best hope to medal in men’s gymnastics at the Olympic Games in Rio — but first he’ll have to earn his place on Team USA.

He’ll try to do that starting Thursday as the Olympic trials for men’s gymnastics begin in St. Louis.

Mikulak’s resume bodes well for his chances. He won his fourth consecutive U.S. all-around championship three weeks ago. He’s good in every discipline — that’s why he’s America’s best in the all-around — but his two specialties are pommel horse and high bar. During his time at the University of Michigan, he and his teammates won back-to-back national championships.

The block M tattoo on his torso proclaims his pride in his time as a student athlete at Michigan.

“I like to think it’s a sense of accomplishment. You go into situations like, ‘I went to the University of Michigan,'” he said. “It’s because they’re the leaders and the best and that’s what they do. They’re always striving to accomplish goals.”

After graduation, he turned his attention to an even more impressive goal — winning an Olympic medal. So he moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado to train full time with the U.S. national team.

“I’ve been in school my entire life. And as soon as it’s done, and gymnastics is the only thing I have to do in my day, it just made me find a new appreciation for the sport,” he said. “It gave me time to actually find what an actual accomplished day felt like, because sometimes I would have to cut a practice a little short to get some rest for my final or to finish a homework assignment. Now it’s like, all right, I did six hours of real hard training, then I did two hours of recovery and rehab in preparation for tomorrow, and I ate well and I slept well, and all these things are just helping me get into the mindset of what it is actually like to be an elite athlete.”

When Mikulak trains, it’s clear there’s no place he would rather be than in the gym with his teammates, doing things very few human beings can do. Even though he’ll be competing against them in the next competition, he’s pulling for them every step of the way.

“It’s such a big factor in gymnastics, which is known as an individual sport, where the better I am, the better I help the team. But the better the team is, the better they’re going to help me. And it’s this ongoing circle of everyone trying to be as good as they possibly can, and it’s so contagious whenever you’re training with guys that have the same goals of wanting to be an Olympic gold medalist,” he said. “You can’t really look like, ‘Oh man, I hope this guy falls’ or something because that’s actually going to hurt you in the end. You want to beat everyone at their best.”

U.S. men’s gymnastics only earned one medal in the 2012 games in London — Danell Leyva won bronze in the all-around — so the pressure will be on for better results in Rio. But pressure is nothing new for athletes who are used to performing alone on a stage when the spotlight is harsh and unforgiving to those who falter.

“This is your life goal. This is what kids dream about from a very young age,” Mikulak said of the Olympics. “Going up and competing … and this being that one routine that decides whether you get a gold medal or not. That rush of adrenaline and excitement, and knowing that this is the one and only time you might have in your life to accomplish it — that’s the kind of pressure that comes along with the Olympic Games.”

Coverage of the men’s gymnastics trials starts on the NBC Sports network on 8:30 p.m., and then again on Saturday on NBC at 9 p.m.

The Olympic Games in Rio begin Aug. 5.Online: 2016 Olympic Games in Rio

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