I was a bit tough on Sam Mikulak when he dropped out of the Olympic Test Event in January. I had watched recent training videos from the rising star who had won the 2011 NCAA all-around title as just a freshman at the University of Michigan, and I had begun to see his potential to be much more than the floor and vault specialist he had been packaged as. Sure, we all knew he was capable of a 7.0 vault and similar complex tumbling passes as world floor finalists Steve Legendre and Jake Dalton, but it was his improvement on pommel horse in particular that I felt transformed him from a theoretical dark horse to a credible Olympic contender. He also showcased some innovative skills on parallel bars, a clean and strong high bar set, and a stylish overall look.
I was excited to see what he could do on the international stage in the Olympic year, particularly after his two fractured ankles last summer prevented him from competing in what was to be his senior international debut at the 2011 Puerto Rican Cup. That’s why I couldn’t understand why he would throw away the biggest opportunity of his life by declining the invitation to compete at the Test Event in London – in the North Greenwich “O2” Arena – the very venue for the gymnastics competition at this summer’s Olympic Games. What could possibly better prepare him to make a run for the Olympic team than that? He did go on to compete in the Winter Cup just a few weeks later, but when he fell on pommel horse both days of the competition, I suddenly had a hard time seeing it happen for him this year.
That might have changed – at least a little bit – with his performance at the Pacific Rim Championships two weeks ago. Although he might not quite be up there with the very top contenders just yet, he turned quite a few heads at this competition and served notice that he may well be in the mix for at least an Olympic alternate spot in just a couple of months. With an aggressive and confident six-for-six performance, Mikulak placed 2nd all-around – just 0.05 behind fellow Olympic contender Chris Brooks – and in fact would have won the meet outright had he not made a silly error on a wide-arm press to handstand on floor, which cost him a painful six tenths in deduction (see more details here). The 19-year-old college sophomore continued to perform like a seasoned veteran in the event finals, winning an impressive four medals, including silvers on vault and high bar and bronzes on pommel horse and parallel bars. Not a bad outing for his first senior international competition – and with just over two months to go before the U.S. national championships, not a bad time to do it.
Let’s take a look at all six of his routines from the Pacific Rim meet, and then I’ll give some thoughts on what this gymnast might bring to the Olympic table.
Sam Mikulak 2012 Pacific Rim Championships
Floor, Team Finals
5.7 + 8.85 = 14.55
Pommel Horse, Event Finals
5.9 + 8.475 = 14.375
Rings, Team Finals
5.6 + 8.65 = 14.25
Vault, Event Finals
7.0 + 8.675 = 15.675
P-Bars, Event Finals
5.9 + 8.725 = 14.625
High Bar, Team Finals
6.5 + 8.75 = 15.25
In an ideal world, the U.S. team would be able to put up Jake Dalton, Steve Legendre, and Sam Mikulak on floor and vault in the Olympic team finals. All three could score well into the 15’s on floor and above the 16-mark with their 7.0 value vaults. But with just five gymnasts per team, and considering that Danell Leyva, John Orozco, and Jonathan Horton are likely likely locks for London, this isn’t going to happen. In fact, considering the team’s needs on pommel horse and rings, it’s very doubtful that more than one of these three will end up on the final squad. What Mikulak demonstrated here, though, is that he is certainly usable on both floor and vault, and should a pommel horse specialist position not work out for this team, he could be a reasonable backup option for this event. And although he’s not one of the U.S. team’s top three on parallel bars or high bar, he’s good enough to at least put up 15’s on both of these events. I don’t think his rings routine is quite strong enough to be used – at least not in an ideal setting for this team – and that’s where Jake Dalton has an edge over him. Both Dalton and Legendre obviously have much more experience than Mikulak, but Mikulak showed here that he can certainly handle international level pressure. And competing nearly every weekend in college will help him continue to improve his competitive confidence with these routines, particularly on an event like pommel horse, where repetitions under pressure are key.
Overall, Sam Mikulak is not on the Olympic team right now, but I do think he has put himself on the radar, at least for consideration for one of the alternate spots. A lot can still happen over the next 2-3 months, so keep your eyes out for this rapidly rising star. He’s still very young and could easily push towards another Olympic Games in 2016, but as for 2012, he’s just become an exciting part of the mix.