Reset and resilience: US male gymnasts’ approach to Tokyo

Reset and resilience: US male gymnasts’ approach to Tokyo

Ashley Landis/AP

Alec Yoder of the United States performs on the pommel horse during the Men’s Team Qualification at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre at the Tokyo Olympics, July 24, 2021.

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July 26, 2021

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The U.S. men’s gymnastics team hasn’t medaled at the Olympics in 13 years. On Monday, they came in fifth in the team finals, with a score well behind countries on the podium. But what’s evident in Tokyo is a new tone: focused and driven, but also relaxed and joyful. 

It’s a feeling the team credits in part to Sam Mikulak, the only member with previous Olympic experience. The suspenseful wait for the delayed Games prompted him, like many athletes, to rethink his approach to goals that had become all-consuming. With success based on not just technique, but poise, gymnastics demands a level of perfectionism and calm that, over years, ramps up the pressure even higher. 

Why We Wrote This

A yearlong wait for these Olympics tested athletes – and not just their patience. The delay prompted some to reset their relationship with the sports that define so much of their identity, and find a little more joy.

But Mr. Mikulak needed to feel at peace, to feel that “wherever we land, we’re going to be proud of the performances we put out there,” as he said after Saturday’s qualifying event.

And as the team’s older brother of sorts, he’s tried to pass that attitude on. This weekend, when pommel horse specialist Alec Yoder turned to him for advice, he told him, “This doesn’t define you.”

“It’s bigger than that,” Mr. Mikulak told him. “You’re bigger than that.”

Tokyo

Hours before the U.S. men’s gymnastics team competed in Saturday’s qualifying round, Alec Yoder was feeling the pressure. 

Mr. Yoder is at the Olympics specifically as a pommel horse specialist, not contributing to the overall team score. “I’m in Tokyo for one routine,” he says. “If I didn’t do well tonight, I would have done one routine in Tokyo.”

So he approached Sam Mikulak, the only member of the team with past Olympic experience. Mr. Mikulak shared something he wishes he’d learned when he was younger. 

Why We Wrote This

A yearlong wait for these Olympics tested athletes – and not just their patience. The delay prompted some to reset their relationship with the sports that define so much of their identity, and find a little more joy.

“This doesn’t define you,” he said. “It’s bigger than that. You’re bigger than that.”

When Mr. Yoder later mounted the pommel horse that evening, he felt a rhythm and kept it. His legs spun clockwise as his arms marched between grips, ending in a handstand that gently dipped to the ground. 

The judges awarded him a 15.2, the fourth-highest overall score. Mr. Yoder would advance – and his elated team erupted into a series of hugs and fist pumps. 

The celebrations mark a new tone for men’s gymnastics – a discipline the United States hasn’t medaled in for 13 years. The team, which finished fifth in team finals Monday, far behind the medalists, approaches competition like podium training, as gymnasts refer to official practice sessions: focused and driven, but also relaxed and joyful. It’s a sense of peace the team credits in part to Mr. Mikulak, who last year reset his relationship to the sport.


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When the pandemic delayed the Games last year, Mr. Mikulak confronted the potential loss. He’d built his life around gymnastics, and seeing its fragility made him feel hollow. He didn’t have a clear line between sport and self. 

The suspenseful wait meant Mr. Mikulak, like so many athletes now in Tokyo, had to rethink his approach to a goal that had become all-consuming. He developed a new method, and in the process found a new sense of resilience. As the U.S. team’s older brother of sorts, he’s tried to pass on the approach, creating a bond he’s never experienced in nearly a decade of Olympic competition. 

“This could have been such a horrible experience, but we’ve got such a strong-willed group here and we’re able to make the most out of any opportunity,” says Mr. Mikulak. 

“I’ve just become very grateful for where I’m at right now.”

Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

Samuel Mikulak of the United States performs in the floor exercise during the Men’s Team Qualification at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, July 24, 2021. Mr. Mikulak is the only member of this year’s team with previous Olympic experience.

Narrow chance

This summer’s opportunity almost didn’t come.

Both of Mr. Mikulak’s parents were gymnasts at the University of California, Berkeley, and he’s been in gymnastics since he was a toddler. A lifetime in the sport also means a lifetime in its culture. With success based on not just technique, but poise, gymnastics demands a level of perfectionism and calm. For Mr. Mikulak, that pursuit grew into an obsession. 

“I’ve put so much pressure on myself in the previous years, and I’ve been battling a lot of mental health and physical health [issues],” he says. 

The U.S. emerged medal-less at his first two Games in London and Rio de Janeiro. Both years, the team finished fifth overall, and in the 2016 high bar, Mr. Mikulak’s specialty, he came one spot short of a bronze. His determination to do better fueled a cycle of endless training. 

Then the pandemic almost took it all away. 

Feeling adrift, confused, depressed, Mr. Mikulak sought help from mental health professionals, family, and his fiancée. He needed something more from gymnastics than a chance to medal. He needed to feel at peace, to feel that “wherever we land, we’re going to be proud of the performances we put out there,” as he said Saturday. 

At U.S. nationals this summer, Mr. Mikulak barely made the team after falling twice from the pommel horse. Now, he’s taken this final chance to compete as an opportunity to mentor his teammates, reminding them there’s more to the Games than hardware. This year the team plays as much as it competes. 

“It’s brought us a lot closer than I think I’ve ever been able [to be] with my previous teammates,” he says. “Being out there with these guys is the most fun I’ve ever had for my Olympic experience.”

Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Samuel Mikulak of the United States, Brody Malone of the United States, Shane Wiskus of the United States and Yul Moldauer of the United States stand before the Men’s Team Qualification at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, July 24, 2021. They advanced to Monday’s team finals, where they placed fifth.

Putting it into practice

Japan, China, and the Russian Olympic Committee took the top three spots in qualifiers, by a wide margin, and were favored to do so again in team finals. Sure enough, in Monday’s nail-biter competition, China earned bronze, while the ROC executed a dramatic concluding floor routine to edge out Japan for gold.

Free from expectations that they’ll medal, the U.S. team’s week has been more carefree. Podium sessions take place to the tune of a raucous and diverse playlist – from Tim McGraw’s “Something Like That” to “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. They cheer ferociously during each other’s performances, and serve copious high-fives and celebratory poses – shooting a lightning bolt or rocking an imaginary baby – after landing. 

“It felt a lot like podium training,” team member Shane Wiskus says of this weekend’s competition. “We just kind of stayed in our own bubble and made it easier to focus on the apparatus.”

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On the vault, the team’s final apparatus, Mr. Wiskus rolled before recovering for a hasty landing. It was a costly error, for a team that can’t afford them if it hopes to medal. All the same, his team applauded and came to his side at the end. On the U.S. men’s team, that’s become the expectation.

“These guys are right there to pick me back up,” says Mr. Wiskus. 

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Mark Sappenfield
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