ANN ARBOR, Mich. — What had seemed like a foregone conclusion was suddenly not so sure.
Sam Mikulak, the Michigan senior and preeminent star of college men’s gymnastics for the past four years, failed to catch the bar on a release move Friday night at the NCAA NC Men’s Gymnastics Championships. After coming into the fifth rotation with a commanding 1.95-point lead in the all-around, Mikulak walked to the final event, floor exercise, with only a 0.1 margin against Stanford freshman Akash Modi.
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Finally, upon sticking the landing on his final tumbling pass — in front of a raucous home crowd at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, no less — Mikulak let loose, flexing his muscles and skipping off the podium to his waiting teammates. With that one strong routine, he had not only defended his all-around title but he also clinched Michigan’s second consecutive team title.
“Something deep inside me just went arrgh!” he said. “I just got vicious. I don’t think I’ve ever had my heart race that fast as it did right after that routine.”
Mikulak’s night wasn’t perfect — he fell on the high bar and had his lowest rings score of the season. But with his degree of difficulty, and his performances on the other four apparatuses (three top scores and a second), he didn’t have to be perfect. Mikulak still won the all-around title by nearly two points over Modi, 91.100 to 89.200. The win was Mikulak’s sixth career NCAA title, and with four individual event finals on Saturday, he has a chance to blow away the record of seven.
“Last year it was real hard to sleep,” Mikulak said of the first day of the 2013 NCAA championships, when he also won the team/all-around double. “But last year it worked very well, too.”
Indeed, he went on to win individual titles in high bar and parallel bars and a bronze medal in floor exercise.
Mikulak’s collegiate career already ranks among the all-time greats such as Jim Hartung, Jonathan Horton and Peter Vidmar. Just two weeks ago at the Big Ten championships, he set NCAA records in the all-around and parallel bars. Perhaps the only blemish on Mikulak’s career is that he fell short of the all-around title in 2012, a year in which he was recovering from two broken ankles and was training to peak later that summer.
“That was the Olympic year,” Michigan coach Kurt Golder said. “I knew that he had his mind on making that Olympic team, and he was kind of pacing himself.”
And after still finishing as the NCAA all-around runner-up in 2012, Mikulak indeed made the U.S. Olympic team for London and helped the squad finish fifth.
The Olympic team selection was actually a bit of a surprise, as he came into that summer considered as a more likely prospect for the 2016 Olympic team, but the experience only re-enforced his potential.
When Mikulak rejoined the Wolverines last season, Golder said he was more confident and that the already-laidback gymnast had actually loosened up. He certainly hasn’t regressed with his gymnastics. After his big junior season with Michigan, Mikulak went on to a bigger summer. He rolled through the U.S. championships, winning the all-around title over his heralded Olympic teammates Danell Leyva and John Orozco. Then, at the world championships, he finished fourth in high bar and sixth in the all-around.
The momentum then continued right into 2014. Mikulak won the prestigious AT&T American Cup in March and now has his third NCAA all-around title. And again, he’s not done yet for 2014.
“We’re just trying to do an even pace preparing him, because he has competitions that are really important […] after NCAAs,” Golder said. “So we’re certainly not striving to peak at NCAAs.”
Golder says his star gymnast plans to stay in Ann Arbor after his collegiate career and compete through 2016 and maybe even the 2020 Games. For now, however, Mikulak is more focused on the near future.
On Saturday, he will have an opportunity to cement his legacy as one of the best collegiate gymnasts of all time. It’s also his last opportunity to compete collegiately for Michigan, an experience he says has been equally “the most amazing feeling in the world” with the Olympics, while also totally different.
“With this team, we’ve done so much together,” he said. “We’re not just teammates, we are best friends.”