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SportsMonday Column: Life beyond the Olympic rings

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 23, 2013

Draped outside an apartment window high above Olympic Village, two flags fluttered silently, lifted and tossed by a brisk London breeze. One flag bore the green and red of Bangladesh; the other, Michigan’s block ‘M.’

Syque Caesar sat inside that apartment, perched on the edge of his checkered Olympic bedspread, and tried to somehow explain how he got there. The weight of the essence of the Olympics was swiftly sinking in: performing for pride, for family, for country. He simply couldn’t grasp it then, not there in Olympic Village, with world-class athletes behind every door, around every corner.

Now, six months after Caesar — now a senior on the Michigan men’s gymnastics team — junior gymnast Sam Mikulak and junior swimmer Connor Jaeger returned from competing in the 2012 London Olympics, they are steering top-three programs at Michigan that are in line to make serious national-title runs.

With their eyes firmly on that prize, the trio paused for just a day last week to relive its journey from student-athlete to Olympian and back again last summer.


SYQUE CAESAR: A CLICK AWAY

Quazi Caesar didn’t even try to wipe away the tears washing down his face. He was beaming, too, as he watched from the stands as his son, Syque, entered behind the Bangladesh banner during the opening ceremonies at Olympic Stadium.

The 21-year-old gymnast, one of five individuals representing Bangladesh at the Games, was captured by BBC cameras and broadcasted to the world — his arms spread wide, a charming smile splashed across his face.

With his son circling the track below, Quazi, a former member of the Bangladesh national soccer team, could relate. Even as it played out in front of him, he could hardly believe the arc of his son’s journey to London.

It was during a routine trip to the mall in Port Saint Lucie, Fla. in 1996 that Quazi noticed a flyer for gymnastics training. He asked if his son wanted to give it a try, and the 6-year-old quickly agreed. A decade later, when the son had a falling out with a club coach, Quazi stepped in.

“You know what?” Quazi asked. “I’ll coach you.”

Caesar still smiles at the memory.

“Over the next two years, I basically taught him how to coach me,” Caesar said. He would show his father YouTube videos and tell him, “I’ve got to do this, and it’s got to look just like that. Just be a spectator, and if it doesn’t look like that, then tell me how to make it look like that.”

And it worked out just fine, didn’t it? For Quazi, that’s one student taught ... and one student sent to the Olympics.

“That’s 100 percent!” Mikulak chirped from across the table. Caesar nodded, stooped his head and grinned. Finding a coach was never his biggest roadblock, though.

Caesar’s road to London all hinged on an e-mail.

After making headlines on New Year’s Eve 2011 by earning the first gold medal in Bangladesh international gymnastics history at an event in Tokyo, Caesar was approached by representatives of the National Olympic Committee of Bangladesh, who asked Caesar if he would consider representing Bangladesh as an individual performer at the Olympics since the country does not field a full team.

He readily agreed, and the paperwork was sent to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In April, Caesar finally got the email. The IOC had approved him.

Nearly recovered from a tear of the long head of his right bicep, Caesar, training in Ann Arbor, tore the long head of his left bicep just a week before London. (“That’s a pretty important thing to have,” he said.) The injury kept him from performing on the pommel horse and the rings, but he was still able to compete on four apparatuses.

In qualifications, Caesar landed all four of his events, taking 27th on the parallel bars, 29th on the floor exercise and 50th on the horizontal bar.

“4-for-4 at the Olympics? I couldn’t be any happier,” he said.

His words lingered in the air just a moment longer this time as he thought back to the flag draped outside his window. He wasn’t just representing himself, his family or even his country.

“I can honestly say that if I didn’t come to this university, there’s no way I’d be able to be at the Olympics,” he said. “I took the block ‘M’ with me all the way to London and made that visible. I always thought: Because of Michigan, I’ve been able to achieve my dream of competing at the Olympics.”


SAM MIKULAK: THE GOLDEN BOY

Caesar and Mikulak couldn’t possibly have piloted more different paths to the Olympics.

“It was a little-kid dream of mine to go to the Olympics,” Mikulak said.

That little kid started gymnastics at age 2, due in large part to the influence of his parents, Stephen and Tina Mikulak, who were once gymnasts at California.

After breaking both ankles a year before the Olympics, he redoubled his focus on the all-around, which led to a whirlwind sophomore season. Mikulak was the 2012 NCAA high-bar champion and runner-up in the all-around. He took silver on the parallel bars at the Visa Championships in St. Louis in early June, then traveled to San Jose, Calif. for the U.S. Olympic Trials. He was named to the five-man team and trained in Colorado Springs, Colo. for almost three weeks before flying to London.

Whew.

That little kid in Mikulak showed through in the vault finals of the Olympics. Battling through an ankle injury that had limited him, Mikulak stepped onto the runway and eyed the vault.

Be explosive, he recited.

After a deep breath, he bolted down the stretch and started into his handspring approach. Two front flips later, his feet slammed the padding and held firm. He stuck it. Mikulak pumped his fists twice, saluted the crowd, and then walked over to plant a kiss on the vault.

The vault, and the boyhood charm, earned him a fifth-place finish in the final — just out of medal contention, just enough incentive to keep the fire alive.

“That was a good note to end on,” Mikulak said.

Earlier, Mikulak and Team USA faltered after a surprise first-place finish in the qualifiers to take fifth in the finals.

“With the young team, we had our mistakes,” Mikulak admitted.

The Olympics were a rapid welcome into the public eye for Mikulak. “I felt like we were on a pedestal,” he said. “We felt like celebrities, somewhat.” His Twitter follower count ballooned to over 105,000. (Caesar noted that he didn’t quite get that boost.)

Coming off that high, though, wasn’t easy. That follower count has tapered off to just over 83,000.

“I guess I’m not as exciting as I once was,” Mikulak joked.

Mikulak fully intends to make another run at the Olympics in 2016. After he graduates in a year and a half, Mikulak doesn’t plan to return to his sunny hometown of Corona del Mar, Calif. He wants to stay in Ann Arbor to train.

“I feel like Michigan has done so much for me, might as well stay with what works,” he said.


CONNOR JAEGER: THE EXTRA LAP

The prestigious hallway is tucked deep into the recesses of Canham Natatorium, where only the athletes have passage. On the wall is a swim cap from each Michigan swimmer who has competed at the Olympics.

Connor Jaeger walked that hallway every day. He recognized the history and tradition of the program, and he never felt worthy, really.

“I came to Michigan a nobody,” Jaeger said.

But that nobody caught fire as a sophomore. Like much of the men’s swimming and diving team, Jaeger traveled to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. with a chance to race for a spot on the Olympic roster. Jaeger, though, knew he had a better shot than most.

Though he swam in the 200-, 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle events at the Trials, his true strength was the longer distance. He wanted to reach the final in the 400-meter, which he did by placing in the top eight. And he knew that one of the members of his training group, comprised of Jaeger, Sean Ryan, Ryan Feeley and Matt Patton, had a legitimate chance at securing one of the two spots for 1,500-meter swimmers on the Olympic roster.

“We were all really excited to push each other,” Jaeger said. “We looked at it as a team goal and a team success if we got one of us on the team instead of thinking of it as four people fighting for one or two spots.”

All four swimmers qualified for the final, but it was Jaeger — competing in the 1,500-meter for just the fifth time in his career — that got the most attention. In his preliminary heat, Jaeger tapped the wall second, but he lost count of his laps and continued on, making a turn and swimming a full 50 meters before realizing his mistake.

In the final, Jaeger certainly didn’t lose count, and when he tapped the wall second after 15 laps, he punched his ticket to London.

Jaeger laughed when asked to compare the Olympics to a Big Ten meet.

“Well, at a college meet, there are certainly people there cheering for you and people there cheering against you. But at the Olympics a lot of people just go to watch the spectacle.

“No one was there wanting Connor Jaeger to fail.”

And fail he didn’t. Jaeger was the only American to reach the final, and he placed sixth, 12 seconds out of bronze-medal position.

“You can definitely feel a sense of failure if you don’t get the medal,” Jaeger said. “But now, looking back in hindsight, even though I didn’t get a medal, I have to be happy with my performance.”

Jaeger still walks that Canham hallway each day. When he reaches the end, he sees a sign that hangs over the double doors.

“It's not every four years,” it reads. “It’s every day.”

His cap isn’t on the wall just yet, but it’ll be affixed there soon enough. He’s proven his worth.


BACK TO MICHIGAN

Very few athletes reach the pinnacle of their sports before they even graduate from college. But Caesar, Mikulak and Jaeger did exactly that. And then they came back to earth, back to Michigan. Somehow, that wasn’t a letdown.

Even after competing on the world’s largest stage, they had Michigan on their minds.

“Right before we actually left, Sam and I were both talking how excited we were for the upcoming NCAA season,” Caesar said. “We barely talked about the Olympics leading up to it, but more about how cool the next NCAA season was going to be. So far, we’ve been living up to it.”

They’ve all lived up to it. The three Olympians have steered their programs to top-three national rankings and are gearing up for a post-season stretch. Though the Olympic medals eluded them, a national championship wouldn’t be a bad compromise for now.

“I think once we made the Olympic team it was, ‘Yes, we have this accomplishment, but there are other accomplishments that we want to get, some accolades we need to finish,’ ” Mikulak said, taking his hand from his varsity jacket to gesture toward Caesar.

“We want to win a national championship together. Having two Olympians, our team is no longer as young as it once was. We’re all a lot more experienced, and we know we’re capable of being the best team in this country. We want to go and prove it.”

The student-athletes understand the recognition and value they’ve brought Michigan, too, but they see it as repayment.

“I think that it shows people that the program we have here works and that hard work will pay off,” Jaeger echoed.

In the meantime, though, the Olympians are busy, just like you and me. It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it?

“I’m still a normal engineering student doing homework every night,” Jaeger said with a laugh, “just like everyone else.”

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.