ST. LOUIS — After nearly a decade as the top American male gymnast, Sam Mikulak said he immediately felt relief on Saturday when he made his third Olympic team.
“Oh my God, I actually did it,” he said later, explaining the joy that washed over him when he heard his name called as one of the gymnasts headed to the Tokyo Games.
A year ago, Mikulak, a six-time national champion in the all-around event, never would have imagined himself joining fellow Americans Brody Malone, Yul Moldauer, Shane Wiskus and Alec Yoder on this year’s Olympic team.
Mikulak, from Newport Coast, Calif., had fallen into a depression and struggled with mental health issues when the Tokyo Games were postponed, he said. The dramatic schedule change left him lost and panicked about his place in the world, especially without gymnastics to give him a sense of purpose.
With the help of mental health professionals, including a therapist and a sports psychologist, Mikulak, who is 28, said he finally came to understand that his self-worth wasn’t tied to his athletic performances. It also sunk in that his happiness didn’t depend on his being perfect, though perfection is something gymnastics demands. That realization is what catapulted him back to the top of his sport.
“I’m just so happy to be out here,” he said, adding that he was no longer obsessed with winning. “I think that’s been the big shift.”
The era of Sam Mikulak is almost done, he said. He is retiring at the end of this year and has acknowledged that Malone is not only the future of the sport but also its present. Malone’s performances over the past several months lend credence to that idea. In that time, Malone, 21, from Summerville, Ga., won his second N.C.A.A. national championship in the all-around, with Stanford. He also won the U.S. national championship and finished first on both days of Olympic trials.
Malone won trials on Saturday far ahead of second-place Yul Moldauer, 24, of Arvada, Colo., and Shane Wiskus, 22, of Spring Park, Minn., who was third. Malone and Moldauer grabbed the two guaranteed spots on the Olympic team, while Wiskus and Mikulak were chosen by a U.S.A. Gymnastics committee.
Also, Alec Yoder of Indianapolis, 24, was selected to compete in the extra Olympic spot the United States earned with its performance at the Senior Pan American Championships earlier this month. He will be an event specialist, in the pommel horse, and will not compete in the team event.
The main four-man squad has a mix of personalities and experience: Mikulak is the veteran who practices mindfulness and daily gratitude. Malone is the quiet, unflappable newcomer. Moldauer is the fiery, vocal cheerleader. Wiskus, the epitome of resilience.
Brett McClure, the men’s high performance team coordinator, called Malone “a stud” after trials was done.
“He just looked unshakable,” he said of Malone, who barely showed any emotion as he rotated from apparatus to apparatus and dominated the Olympic trials.
Moldauer, however, is anything but stoic. His positive energy can’t be contained — he’s known for giving break dancing lessons at parties — and McClure said he appreciated how it motivates the gymnasts around him.
At trials, Moldauer finished every event by pumping his arms, dancing around and shouting to the crowd as if he had just won a gold medal.
“I always try to bring the hype,” he said. “I want my team to feel the energy that makes them excel.”
For Wiskus, making the Olympic team showed how he can excel and bounce back from even the toughest adversity. When he heard his name called to be on the team, he cried because he was so overwhelmed.
He couldn’t make up the story of what he had been through recently, he said, even if he tried. His season at the University of Minnesota was cut short last year, and he was relegated to practicing gymnastics in his yard and then at local gyms. Finally back on campus at Minnesota, the university cut his men’s gymnastics program. It had existed for 118 years and had managed to produce standout gymnasts, like Wiskus, even though it didn’t have enough room in its gym for a full-size gymnastics floor.
Then, at nationals this month, Wiskus fell from the high bar three times — causing the crowd to hush with worry — before he finally finished his routine. He came back with a strong performance at trials to prove the U.S. team could count on him.
“I’ve just kind of been through the ringer,” Wiskus said. “I’ve told myself that I’ve been through enough. I’m ready to show what I can do.”
Together, the team’s goal will be to win the first Olympic gymnastics medal for the U.S. men in 13 years. The last time the team made the podium at an Olympics was when it won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games. McClure, who helped the U.S. men’s team win a silver at the 2004 Olympics, said it wouldn’t be easy to break that streak this year.
The U.S. team was particularly hurt by the pandemic because shutdowns caused universities across the nation to close, he said, and a lot of his national team athletes trained at universities.
“Looking at China and Russia and Japan, they all bubbled immediately and were able to stay together and continue their training, and we could not,” McClure said. “So that was hard.”
The squad, though, can look to Mikulak for advice on how to handle the pressure of the Olympics and find a way to at least perform at its best. He has been at two Olympics, with both of those men’s squads finishing fifth in the team competitions. In 2012, Mikulak finished fifth on the vault. In 2016, he was fourth on the high bar.
His teammates said they’d like nothing more than for him to finish his career with “some hardware,” Moldauer said, referring to an Olympic medal or two. And they hope to help him do that.
When considering what advice he might share with his teammates, who are all first-time Olympians, Mikulak said he would warn them against internalizing other people’s expectations. Just do the gymnastics for yourself, he said, and don’t put pressure on yourself.
“I wish someone would have told me that,” he said.