Sam Mikulak’s 2012 Olympic competition ended with a stuck landing, a kiss on the vault and an embrace with his coach. It was also how a new chapter of his life began.
After finishing fifth individually in the vault and participating with Team USA which finished fifth overall, the junior from Corona del Mar, Calif. got a chance to take in the rest of the Olympics as a spectator.
Instead of leaving the Olympic Village to go home after he was done competing, Mikulak relished the opportunity to stay with his fellow Olympic athletes, getting a chance to talk and interact with them.
“The coolest person I met was Serena Williams,” Mikulak said. “She is such a superstar and she came up to us and just started a conversation like we were on the same level.”
Unable to attend the Opening Ceremony since the preliminary rounds for gymnastics were the next day, Mikulak made it a point to attend the Closing Ceremony.
“Gymnasts are some of the shorter athletes there, so you couldn’t really see much. I felt I would have been more excited to actually see what was going on instead of seeing the back of tall peoples’ head,” Mikulak said. “But it was awesome just being there because, how often do you get to go to the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games?”
Following the closing ceremony, Mikulak and the rest of Team USA received a king’s welcome when they returned to the United States, complete with fire trucks, a huge American flag and the announcement of every returning athlete.
He also received a similar reaction upon returning home to California, a welcome his family and friends attended.
“It was a very nice feeling having everyone appreciate me competing for the country,” Mikulak said. “There was a lot of moral support, and everyone was just so happy for me.”
After returning from the Olympic games, Mikulak saw a significant increase in the number of people that recognized him in public and while on campus. He saw his followers on his Twitter account rise to more than 85,000, which puts him ahead of two other prominent Michigan athletes: men’s basketball guard Trey Burke and quarterback Denard Robinson.
Cheering on Robinson and the rest of the Wolverines at football games proved to be difficult for the Olympian, as fans constantly asked him for pictures and autographs throughout the games. Mikulak was also honored — along with other Olympians from the University — during a home football game at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 13.
In addition to being honored at the Big House, Mikulak and his fellow American Olympians were honored at the White House by President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“I met President Obama and Mrs. Obama and gave her a nice little hug, but she is a lot taller than what she looks on TV,” Mikulak said.
Although he’s had great experiences after the Olympics, not all has been smooth sailing for Mikulak.
Nursing a lingering ankle injury, Mikulak received a cortisone shot in his ankle soon after returning from London. Shortly after coming back from the ankle injury, Mikulak tore a muscle in his left calf during practice, leaving him in a boot for close to a month. He has been recovering from that for three months and is getting close to a return.
“The calf is almost healed,” Mikulak said. “I have to start doing landing in a week or two, and hopefully be back tumbling and vaulting not long after that.”
The injury, however, may turn out to be a blessing for Mikulak. Since he couldn’t vault or tumble with the torn calf, he has had more time to focus and improve his ring work. Mikulak has admitted that the rings haven’t been his strongest event, and he expects it to improve considerably when he returns.
“In my whole all-around, everything has been great except for my rings,” Mikulak said. “Now that I have the rings that I have improved on significantly, my all-around should boost quite a good margin.”
Mikulak has previous experience with turning an injury into something positive. During the 2011 season, he broke both of his ankles, giving him a chance to work on one of his self-proclaimed weaker events, the pommel horse.
“My two weakest events have gotten a lot better over the last few years because of my injuries,” Mikulak said.
For an Olympic athlete, NCAA champion and All-American several times over, it would be easy for Mikulak to focus solely on himself and his events. But Mikulak’s focus is solely on the team.
“Individual isn’t really what I am focusing on,” Mikulak said. “I would love just for the team to come out with the NCAA gold. Right now that’s all I’m going to be focusing on and just trying to get back as fast as I can and help the team.”
The team he is referring to is Michigan, currently No. 2 in the nation. It most likely will become the No. 1 team in the country soon, since it’s coming off a win at the Windy City Invitational. This first-place finish was not only impressive due to the fact that they beat No. 1 Illinois and No. 4 Ohio State, but also due to the fact that they won it without the help of Mikulak, who was at the U.S. national team camp in Colorado.
Besides a team national championship, Mikulak also wants to compete for the United States once more at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero. The timetable for the Olympics is favorable for Mikulak, who will only be two years out of college. Another advantage for Mikulak will be working with veteran Michigan coach Kurt Golder and the rest of the staff in Ann Arbor.
“After I graduate, I’ll stay here with the coaching staff and great apparatuses here,” Mikulak said. “I think it will be a smart choice because they led me to the Olympics one time. I don’t see why in a few more years they can’t do it again.”
And if all goes as planned, Mikulak will be on the world stage once again in 2016, hoping he can finish his Olympic experience with a stuck landing, an embrace with his coach and a kiss on his shiny new Olympic medal.