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In our Thrills in Tokyo series, we’ll highlight some of the summer Olympics biggest competitions. More than just focusing on the teams, we’ll look at the colleges from which these athletes hail.
With her extraordinary talents, all eyes in Tokyo will be on Women’s Team gymnast Simone Biles, who aims to cement her status as G.O.A.T., aka, Greatest of All Time.
Still, the men’s gymnast team is looking to be great too. And two of its athletes, University of Michigan’s Sam Mikulak and University of Oklahoma’s Yul Moldauer, are leading the way, both in team and individual matches. If they succeed, the USA Men’s Gymnastics will visit the medals podium for the first time since winning bronze during the 2008 Beijing games.
As a sophomore in 2012, Mikulak, now 28, became the first male gymnast from Michigan to qualify for the Olympics. He wound up leading his school to the NCAA team title in 2013 and 2014. Of his years there, Mikulak told NBC Sports in 2019, “Going to Michigan gave me a whole new perspective on competitions and team camaraderie. Our team had a very different and special connection than other teams. I think that's what made us successful.”
With Tokyo, Mikulak, an artistic gymnast, becomes a three-time Olympian, having competed before in the 2012 and 2016 games. Along the way, he’s racked up a few other impressive victories, including gold in both the 2015 Pan American Games (Team and All-Around) and in the 2018 Pacific Rim Championships (Team and All-Around for rings and the horizontal bar). His pursuit of perfection, though, along with a drive for fame took their toll on him. This year, the athlete revealed he’s been dealing with mental health struggles and is getting therapy. He credits Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps for setting an example to seek help.
Moldauer, meanwhile, is a first-time Olympian, though he arrives at the games having achieved the second-best overall score at the games’ gymnastics team trials. Also an artistic gymnast, he won 18 All-America honors at O.U., tying him for first in O.U. history and tying him for second in NCAA history. His other achievements include winning gold in 2017, 2018, and 2019 at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup.
A future as an Olympian may have been the last thing anyone expected from Moldauer in his early years. Born prematurely in Seoul to a chemically dependent mother, Moldauer had physical issues. But by his first birthday, an American couple adopted him and brought him to his new home, the Colorado farm where he grew up. And by kindergarten, he had already started gymnastics. Of his college sports career at Oklahoma, Moldauer has said, “Honestly, without going there, I don't know if I'd be the same gymnast I am today with my routines, my strains, my mental game. Gymnastics comes to a point where you can be strong enough and have all these skills, but it comes down to the mental game.”
This year’s team will compete in a new format exclusive to the Tokyo Olympics. The squad is made up of four men—the other two being Brody Malone of Stanford University and Shane Wiskus of Ohio State—who will compete in team matches. A fifth member, Ohio alum Alec Yoder, is the plus-one who will compete in individual events only.
When it comes to a team trying to win back acclaim, Mikulak learned an important lesson back in college. His experience there, he has said, “helped me understand that you're never alone in this sport. And having a good team is actually what makes you a better gymnast.”
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Catch full Olympic coverage on NBC, including the Men’s Gymnastics finals at 8:00 p.m. ET.