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How the U.S. Men's Gymnasts Have Tried to Focus on Fun While Pushing to Make the Podium

·4-min read

Before their strong showing at qualifying in the Tokyo Summer Olympics on Saturday night, the U.S. men's gymnastics gathered in a practice gym, put on a playlist and got to work.

The playlist, though, was key.

"Every person picks a song," Sam Mikulak, the squad's three-time Olympian, told reporters after qualifying. Sometimes that means rap, sometimes that means techno; sometimes Tim McGraw, sometimes Bruce Springsteen.

"Honestly, we don't need to be focused, we just need to enjoy the process," Mikulak said, noting how they have bonded off the mat — and how, he said, it had improved them as athletes.

"All we've been doing this whole time has been hanging out in the hallways and we honestly couldn't be more happier throughout it all, just sitting around joking, being ourselves," he said. (Rather than attend Friday's opening ceremony, they and the women's gymnasts threw a parade themselves — with Mikulak as flagbearer.)

"We've really been able to make the most out of this experience and it's brought us a lot closer."

That camaraderie was on clear display at qualifying, which saw the four-man team advance to the finals as well as several of the gymnasts move forward in individual events, despite some mistakes.

RELATED: 'Do You Believe in Miracles?' — U.S. Men's Gymnasts Qualify for Finals — but Say It's All About the Vibes

Men's gymnastics qualifying
Men's gymnastics qualifying

Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images Team USA's Samuel Mikulak celebrates with his coach after competing in the pommel horse event of the artistic gymnastics men's qualification during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Saturday.

Men's gymnastics qualifying
Men's gymnastics qualifying

Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images Team USA's Alec Yoder (behind) celebrates after competing in the pommel horse event of the artistic gymnastics men's qualification during the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Saturday.

Mikulak, 28, huddled that night with the other gymnasts for a quick word.

"You guys are bringing tears to my eyes, I'm so freakin' proud of you guys," he said. "This is huge. Thank you guys so much for making this such a fun experience, too."

In recent years, Mikulak has been more and more vocal about how his perspective on elite gymnastics and the Olympics has shifted and how he has found a richer sense of self and satisfaction as a result.

He also continues to compete well — which is part of the point, in his words.

RELATED: Reigning Gold Medal Gymnast from Japan Slips Off Horizontal Bar in Stunning Fall, Out of Olympics

"It's about having fun. I've put so much pressure on myself in the previous years and I've been battling a lot of mental health, physical health and I've just become very grateful for where I'm at right now," he told reporters on Saturday, "and [I'm] so proud of these guys being able to step it up for their first Olympics, put on a showing like that. There's just nothing but love and respect for these guys."

Speaking alongside Mikulak, the other gymnasts said they had sometimes turned to him for advice — including Alec Yoder, who chose to compete on the pommel horse and who had faced the prospect of failing to meet expectations.

(Not so: He came in fourth and advanced to the final.)

Men's gymnastics qualifying
Men's gymnastics qualifying

Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images Team USA's Alec Yoder competes in the pommel horse event of the artistic gymnastics men's qualification during the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Saturday.

Mikulak told reporters that, speaking with Yoder before the competition, "We were just talking about — even if you do make a mistake, you're good, you're still gonna be loved, we still are gonna care about you. And I think that's something I had learned when I was going through this process years ago is, hey, it's not the end of the world. This doesn't define you. It's bigger than that. You're bigger than that. And when you can finally accept every outcome, you can finally shine at your brightest."

Now they look ahead to the finals, which start Monday.

As Mikulak told the team when huddled together this weekend: "We have a lot more to do."

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.

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