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VAULTING TO LONDON: Sam Mikulak and Syque Caesar’s journeys to the 2012 Summer Olympics

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Colleen Thomas, Daily Sports Editor
Published July 22, 2012

For the training center of two Michigan Olympic gymnasts, the Newt Loken Gymnastics Training Center has an atmosphere that is oddly calm and relaxing.

There you’ll find a former national champion warming up to Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones” on the parallel bars on one end of the gym, smiling, while a Team USA gymnast practices his pommel horse routine with his Michigan teammates and coach cheering him on, watching his short but muscular figure complete his Olympic routine.

For many other colleges and universities in the United States, this is a rare occurrence. But for Michigan, this comes as no surprise. The University has seen a current or former student medal at every Summer Olympics since 1900.

But out of the 138 Summer Games medals, a gymnast has won only one. Listening to “Wild Ones” and joking around with your Wolverine teammates isn’t exactly the perfect formula to medal in London, but for Syque Caesar and Sam Mikulak, the pressure of snatching gold is long gone.

Between the two roommates, they have racked up a lengthy list of accolades to their names. Caesar was a member of the 2010 Michigan men’s gymnastics NCAA Champions squad and won the 2011 Big Ten title on parallel bars, while Mikulak snagged the 2011 NCAA All-Around Champion title. And in 2012, just points away from a repeat, a slight slip on the pommel horse cost him the win.

High-profile competition isn’t a stranger for the two Wolverines, but that isn’t to say the Olympics isn’t out of their mind — it is only when they’re in the gym.

“As of late, I’ve been trying to keep gymnastics-wise in the gym,” Caesar said. “The Olymipcs are very stressful to think about, and even talking about it doesn’t relieve much tension.”

His roommate agrees.

“If we do talk about (the Olympics), it’s about positive stuff,” Mikulak said. “We’re trying to stay away from any scares we could have. Right now I feel like we both don’t even feel like it’s not happening.”

Both of their journeys to London have prepared them for the toughest, most mentally challenging competition of their lives, as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics commence on Friday.

***

Syque was ready to be a Gator.

He had accepted a full academic scholarship to Florida and was planning to compete for a local club gym in his spare time in college after an ACL tear ended all chances of being recruited for athletic scholarships.

Syque’s junior year gymnastics season was cut short by his injury, and he couldn’t quite recover to 100 percent during his senior year. He struggled, and was finally accepting that his competitive gymnastics career would be over after high school.

But the summer after his senior year changed everything.

“(Michigan gymnastics coach) Kurt (Golder) contacted me the summer after my senior year,” Syque said. “We said some words, exchanged some e-mails … (and) he asked for videos.”

Since Syque wasn’t recruited, he had no recruiting videos made, so he sent Golder some old YouTube videos from his early high school days, not sure of how well Golder would take them.

***

Sam inherited the genes to be a gymnast.

His parents, Stephen and Tina, were both gymnasts at the University of California, Berkeley, and Sam began gymnastics at the age of two.

But as a child, the Corona del Mar, Calif. native played baseball, soccer, hockey and basketball in addition to gymnastics.

As he got older and grew (as much as he could), hockey and basketball were out of the question. And soccer was too much of a time commitment.

“My dad really wanted me to do baseball, but I have so much more fun competing for myself and making sure everything’s on my shoulders,” Sam said. “I liked controlling all the factors, and that was the difference between gymnastics and baseball for me.”

***

“I can honestly say if I hadn’t come to Michigan, I wouldn’t be doing gymnastics still,” Syque said. “Looking back, I don’t think (doing club gymnastics in Florida) would’ve worked out.”

But it didn’t have to come to that.

Syque had been in contact with Wolverines head coach Kurt Golder for the summer before his freshman year in college, and that was enough time for Syque to change his mind.

He was giving up a full academic scholarship at Florida to come to Ann Arbor — out-of-state tuition and all — to compete for Michigan. Golder didn’t need any official recruiting videos to have faith in the Florida native’s natural talent.

And it didn’t take much for Syque to change his mind, either.

“That opportunity (was) worth the risk,” he said.

“Best choice I ever made.”

***

Since age 2, Sam has dreamed of competing at the Olympics, and his parents were his support system, no matter what sport he chose.

But since he chose gymnastics, Sam could look to his parents for words of wisdom.

“They were always just encouraging,” he said. “They never really gave me advice — they knew gymnastics is a mental sport, (and) I had the right head for it. I’m just really competitive.”

He knew his parents would want him to follow in their footsteps at Berkeley as another Mikulak gymnast.

But that wasn’t what Sam envisioned when he visited the Berkeley campus.

“Once I went there, I wanted to get away from that,” Sam said.

So why choose Michigan?

“The team, the coach, academics, campus. Everything was so perfect when I came here. It was so easy to picture myself here for four years.”

***

In December, Syque stood on top of the world, or at least atop the podium at the South Central Asian Artistic Gymnastic Championships.

He had just won the first gold medal in international competition for Bangladesh, taking first place on parallel bars — what he considers his strongest event.

And even before bearing the international gold medal, Syque was a Big Ten champion in that same event.

But he doesn’t think any medal or Big Ten title can prepare him for the biggest meet of his life, especially after he sustained an injury in January.

Syque has had only a few months to recover from a right bicep tendon tear, but his training has already brought him up to speed, and he’s not concerned about his physical shape in London.

“It’s more mental than it is physical,” he said. “If I just stick to the plan I’ve been training on … work until I’m tired, that’s when I know I’m ready. I’m basically at that point right now.

“(But) it’s all focusing on the little details now.”

Syque reads the list posted on the wall, made by former Olympian Paul Hamm.

He’s focusing on the little details: “Do transition elements on floor, go in front of the mirror and do all your routines in the mirror — move your body around mentally and envision yourself.”

He may feel stupid, but Syque knows his training isn’t complete without the mental preparation.

“As an individual, there’s a lot less stress on yourself,” he said. “I need to be able to handle it mentally now.”

***

A range of emotions has defined Sam’s past two years at Michigan — a “rollercoaster,” as he calls it.

He went from winning the 2011 NCAA Individual Championship, to coming up short for the repeat in 2012.

Then he was invited to the U.S. Olympic Trials to compete for one of five spots on Team USA, quite an honor for a gymnast so early in his career.

But what goes up must come down, and an ankle injury brought doubt.

“Leading up the Trials I had such motivation to get in the gym and strive for the best and make everything as perfect as possible,” Sam said. “Once I got out on the floor, I’ve done so much in the gym, it was so easy. It seemed so simple for me.”

Sam sprained his ankle on the second day of the Trials, limiting his competition and potentially costing him a spot on the team.

“That was when tensions were high,” he said.

But he received a lot of support and help from trainers, who gave him some good news — he was on track for a quick recovery.

“I didn’t think (making the Olympic team) was out of the question because once they diagnosed it — it was just an ankle sprain — I knew I could heal from it.”

***

In the Newt Loken Gymnastics Training Center, you won’t see Sam or Syque icing an ankle or bicep, or going easy on a routine to prevent aggravating an injury.

You won’t see either of them talking about the Olympics much, either.

It’s just two teammates, roommates and friends, training and helping each other prepare for just another meet — or so they’d like to believe.

“There’s definitely some expectation for sure,” Syque said. “(But) I don’t think any of this Olympic stuff is going to change our relationship at all.”

Sam agrees.

“Having each other training in the gym, it’s real motivating, because not too many people are still doing routines,” Sam said. “Being roommates, it’s fun, because we can talk about everything, like worries we might have going to the games, just kind of comfort each other.”

But once they arrive in London, reality may hit, and things may not stay so calm and relaxing.

“It’s going to be one crazy experience,” Sam said.


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