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Sam Mikulak tightens his grip on Olympic spot in men's gymnastics

The Corona del Mar native, a sophomore at Michigan, places third at U.S. gymnastics nationals despite loose parallel bars and a missing springboard. He says 'fearless' U.S. men expect team gold medal.

June 11, 2012|By Diane Pucin
  • Sam Mikulak competes in pommel horse during the U.S. gymnastics championships on Saturday in St. Louis.
Sam Mikulak competes in pommel horse during the U.S. gymnastics championships… (Jeff Roberson / Associated…)

ST. LOUIS -- A day after he had finished an emphatic third at the U.S. gymnastics nationals and moved himself into prime position to make his first Olympic team at the age of 19, Sam Mikulak, a sophomore at Michigan and Corona del Mar homie as he calls himself, was stunned Sunday to see he had 125 new friend requests on Facebook.

"That just doesn't happen in men's gymnastics," Mikulak said. "I felt kind of popular, I feel real pleased."

John Orozco, a 19-year-old from the Bronx, won his first national title with fist-pumping, muscle-heavy gymnastics, and the demonstrative 20-year-old Danell Leyva, whose family came to Florida from Cuba, finished second. Still, it was third-place finisher Mikulak who managed to not become unhinged when the parallel bars almost did during the men's finals Saturday at Chaifetz Arena.

And Olympics lovers should pay attention to these men's team hopefuls that have advanced to San Jose for the Olympic trials June 28-July 1. The women expect a team gold medal, and these guys do too.

"We're fearless," Mikulak, son of two former UC Berkeley gymnasts, said Sunday. "We've got big hearts, we want to give a good show and we think we have a good shot of beating the Chinese and Japanese. We were two points from beating China at worlds last year and were even closer to Japan," Mikulak said of the bronze-winning U.S. team. And Mikulak wasn't even on that squad.

He had a good reason. He broke both ankles on a floor dismount during the Puerto Rico Cup last August.

And he kept competing.

"The doctor in Puerto Rico said my ankles were just bruised so I kept on going," said Mikulak, who was NCAA champion his freshman year at Michigan.

He competed in every apparatus except vault and it wasn't until the next day, when his ankles were swollen and bruised that his father, Steve, an orthopedic surgeon who got his medical degree from USC, suggested X-rays that showed the fractures.

"It was kind of amazing, how he kept competing with those that day," Steve Mikulak said. "I kept asking him why he was limping around."

Steve himself was a contender for the 1988 men's gymnastics Olympic team. "I didn't quite make it but I know this feeling," he said.

The most nervous moment for the Mikulak men came Saturday during Sam's parallel bars routine. It was a comedy of equipment errors that Mikulak laughed about only because he was able to not stress during three equipment mix-ups.

First his Michigan coach, Kurt Golder forgot to place the springboard that is used by the athlete to mount the equipment. Golder raced the board out just as Mikulak was nodding to the judges that he was ready. But not quite ready. Golder saw that one of the bars, the one closest to the coach, was loose so he tightened it. It is the responsibility of the coach to make sure all the equipment is in working order before the routine starts.

By then Mikulak was well into his routine and he noticed the other bar was also loose. Trying to use his eyes as a signaling device, he got the attention of assistant coach Geoff Corrigan. Mikulak held onto a handstand just a little longer than normal while Corrigan tightened the other bar and Mikulak finished the routine with a flourish and without a big mistake.

"That was something, wasn't it?" Steve said. "But that's just Sam."

Golder said there is a sign on the bulletin board in the Michigan training room that says, "Handle everything." Golder said he didn't expect that to mean missing boards and loose bars but he also said Mikulak is "the coolest, calmest competitor I've ever had. That has to come from his parents."

Steve Mikulak said he didn't know about the calmness but that Sam was always a great athlete.

"When he was a baby, we just could tell from the way he moved," Steve said.

Sam played soccer and baseball and did gymnastics. He left soccer first but Steve said Sam loved baseball. "He was 11 when he gave that up," Steve said. "It was hard but it came to the point, he was good enough, he had to pick one."

Even though Steve and Sam's mother, Tina, both competed in gymnastics at Berkeley, Sam fell in love with the Michigan coaches and facilities when he made his visit. After he won the NCAA title as a freshman, he was introduced to the Michigan football crowd, 110,000 voices cheering for him. "So cool," he said.

Jonathan Horton, who was a 2008 Olympian and helped the U.S. win team bronze while he won a silver medal in the high bar and who is expected to be the adult voice on this team, calls Mikulak "the wild child. But not in a bad way," Horton said.

The men concluded nationals Saturday and a team meeting for new national team members was scheduled for early Sunday morning. "Sam was like, 'We have to get up at 6:30 a.m.?' " Horton said. He was asking what for. "We're like, 'Sam, this is a big-deal meeting. You have to come.' "

Mikulak went. And he says he won't be late for London either. In fact, he's a little early. "Really, I kind of expected 2016 would be my year," he said. "Now this just means I can go twice."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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