So perhaps Mikulak’s career finale — a sixth-place finish in the Tokyo parallel bars final — is emblematic of his elite career. He’s one of the best gymnasts in the world, just not the best. But how Mikulak embraced that unceremonious result showed how much has changed through his years as the leader of U.S. men’s gymnastics.
Mikulak earned a 15.000 as the third competitor in the final, and the first two athletes had scored higher. He knew his chances of claiming a medal here were unlikely. Yet the 28-year-old smiled nonstop afterward and gave a thumbs-up when his score appeared. That’s what he wanted out of these Games: a sense of peace he hadn’t felt in 2012 or 2016.
“For so long, I've resented my past Olympic experiences because I dictated my happiness based off whether or not I would come away with a medal,” Mikulak said earlier this summer. “The fact that I didn't, I hated myself a little bit for that reason.”
That mind-set has disappeared. As he prepared to compete Tuesday, Mikulak thought to himself: “Why do you always make such a big deal about this? Just go do your routine, man!” It didn’t matter that China’s Zou Jingyuan just delivered a massive 16.233, and Mikulak had to follow a gold medal-winning performance that couldn’t be topped. By the end of it all, Mikulak knew even his best routine wouldn’t have medaled, so he left happy.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced him to take a break from gymnastics, Mikulak finally acknowledged mental health struggles he long had suppressed. When Mikulak reflected on who he was outside this sport, he said he realized, “I need to rework my circuits from the inside out.”
The six-time U.S. all-around champion noticed how unhappy he had become trying to live up to expectations, believing that he needed to be an Olympic champion to be successful. In 2018, when he won a bronze medal on high bar at world championships, he immediately felt like he needed more.
“I used to put so much pressure on myself: ‘I want to get all these national titles. I want to be recognized as one of the greatest in men’s gymnastics,’” Mikulak said. “But I think, in a way, that kind of backfires when the pressure really stacks on.”
Once Mikulak recognized that’s the lens through which he had viewed his career, he started working with professionals, keeping a journal and diving into sports psychology. He reconfigured his outlook so that now he appreciates everything — even doing the dishes, he says as an example — and that bleeds into his gymnastics career, which is no longer defined by any of these athletic accolades.
When asked a couple months ago what it would mean to become a three-time Olympian, Mikulak said: “I've thought a lot about this. And honestly, it wouldn't mean anything.”
His goals for these Games? “I want to be smiling the entire time, because I don't think I smiled enough in my past Olympic experiences.”
This is the authentic, remolded version of Sam Mikulak, who now speaks publicly about his experiences in the hopes that others, including the next generation of elite gymnasts, can come to the same realization sooner.
When Alec Yoder, a pommel horse specialist, struggled during training in Tokyo, Mikulak told him the day of the competition that even though his Olympic goals hinged on this single performance, his success wouldn’t define his worth. Yoder then hit the routine and advanced to the final. Mikulak talked some with Simone Biles through the past week as she worked through her own challenges before competing in the beam final.
Mikulak initially thought he would extend his career through the 2024 Olympics. Then nagging injuries required repeated cortisone shots, and the pandemic-prompted break didn’t seem to help. So as the Tokyo Games approached, he pledged that this would be his last. U.S. teammate Yul Moldauer said before the Olympics he hoped the Americans could “get Sam some hardware before he leaves” because of how much he has meant to the men’s national team.
But that desire didn’t torment Mikulak. He called his experience here “the most stress-free Olympic Games that I’ve ever had in my life.” In London and Rio de Janeiro, his results-driven perspective created a “fear-based atmosphere,” he said. Mikulak finished fifth on vault in 2012, then fourth on high bar, seventh in the all-around and eighth on floor in 2016. The United States has finished fifth in the team competition at the past three Games.
In Tokyo, Mikulak fell during his floor exercise routine as the last competitor in the team final. He lifted his hands as he walked back to his teammates, shrugging off the mistake. He knew a medal was already out of reach.
“Being able to be out on this big floor, so much pressure, and to be able to just be like, ‘Oh, everything’s going to be all right,’ I think that’s something I never really felt at my previous Olympics,” Mikulak said. “I always felt like I had to or I needed to. And now I feel like I just want to.”
Mikulak ended his career with 14 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place finishes at world championships and the Olympics. He earned two bronze medals at worlds, one with the team in 2014 and the other for his high bar routine in 2018.
Not long after he finished his parallel bars routine Tuesday and walked out of the arena as the happiest possible sixth-place finisher, a not-too-emotional Mikulak said: “Honestly, it just ends, I guess.”
He hadn’t expected the final routine of his career to prompt a flood of emotion. Mikulak mostly anticipated “that breath of fresh air afterwards,” he said. Mikulak wanted a moment when he could look around and know that it had ended — this meet, his career, the medal chase that ultimately led to no Olympic medal. It’s all over, and he’s fulfilled.