“I think this happened for a lot of people, but during COVID, you're quarantined. You have a lot of time to think and reflect,” Mikulak said in a recent exclusive interview with Olympics.com. “That’s when I first started questioning my identity and I started reading a lot, too. ‘What makes who you are?’ Because I realize being just a gymnast isn't the healthy way to go.
“I was like, ‘All right, what are your values? What do you value? And then how do you act on those values?’ That seems to be a lot of the core makeup of who you are as a person,” he continued.
One of the most talented U.S. men’s gymnasts ever, Mikulak hopes his new outlook helps him avoid disappointments that have previously plagued him on the international stage.
“I knew going into 2020 that I was about to fall into the same pattern that I fell into in 2013, 2016, and 2018,” he said. “I was like, ‘all right, so if I am going to have a different outcome than all these previous years, I need to figure a way to find my true identity, find my happiness, and then maybe then I'll be able to not feel that big ball of stress.’”
'Find happiness within yourself'
Mikulak believes his disappointments at the 2013 Worlds, 2016 Olympics, and 2018 Worlds were moments where the exact same thing happen: he felt he was close to achieving a lifelong dream, a gold medal at a global competition, and each time the pressure got to him.
Finally, he took a hard look at those moments.
“I never confronted that all the way from 2013 to 2016 to 2018,” Mikulak says. “And now here I am going into 2021 with a whole new perspective of, 'let's get rid of those expectations that you put on yourself, let's find happiness within yourself.'”
It’s an approach that is certainly a work in progress. Mikulak finished a surprising third in the all-around at the recent U.S. Gymnastics Championships, an event he’s won six times before.
The competition was Mikulak’s first since winning the American Cup in March 2020, nearly 15 months ago. He admitted the long time away from competition affected him, forcing him to regroup with his sports psychologist after a disastrous first night of competition.
“[My sports psychologist and I] had a good long heart to heart, that's for sure, and really just analyze what was going wrong,” Mikulak said after day two. “I think I was still putting so much pressure on myself, even though I was aware of it and trying to overcome it.”
“I was like, ‘All right, let's just forget everything. Let's just go and perform, have fun and interact with the crowd,’” he added.
That change worked as Mikulak earned the highest total score on the second day of competition, climbing out of seventh place to third.
Michael Phelps inspires
The 28-year-old has been vocal about his mental health in recent weeks, participating in a recent USA Gymnastics panel on the subject and answering many questions about it in post-competition interviews.
He hopes that by speaking openly and honestly about his journey, he can help others. That’s something he got from hearing Olympic great Michael Phelps speak about his mental health.
“His whole story, it was very eye-opening,” said Mikulak. “One hundred percent. I was like, ‘Man, this man has everything, but he is not happy at all.”
“There’s so many external factors that happened through my life that made me feel like me going to therapy meant I was going through a really hard time, and I never was able to actually see the benefits of therapy,” he admitted. “And, you know, that kind of was just like something that I wish hadn't been instilled in me from a young age and doing the mental health panel was something that I was trying to break free of.”
It’s also help him decide to break free of gymnastics. For years, Mikulak has said he wanted to stay in the sport as long as he could, most likely until the Paris 2024 Olympics.
Tokyo swan song
But now, Mikulak has said the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021 will be his final competition.
“I have always said I was going to keep going until 2024, and I think I just said that because I didn't know what my life outside of gymnastics would be,” Mikulak explained during the mental health panel. “For so long, it was like, all right, I'm just going to keep doing it. I'm going to have another try. I'm going to keep doing it. I'm going to have another try.”
He’s not sure what comes next – and that’s OK, he says. Maybe he’ll open a gym, maybe he’ll do something with sports psychology. Figuring that out is for Future Sam to worry about.
Right now, he’s focusing on taking what he’s learned about himself and truly enjoying the final weeks of his gymnastics career.
“I have done everything I possibly can to be as ready as I can. I've made all the changes and I do feel comfortable. I feel like confident,” said Mikulak. “But I also don't want that to weigh me down. I just have to be grateful. At this point, there's nothing more that I could have done, would have done.
“Let’s be happy with that.”