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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.


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