Olympic gymnast Sam Mikulak used recovery time to get stronger and promote business

First off, the patient in the operating room was a gymnast. In fact, the best male gymnast in the country, Sam Mikulak, the reigning national champion and 2012 U.S. Olympian.  

Surgeon Scott Forman, a foot and ankle specialist, needed no such reminders when the patient had surgery last year, but his associate, Sam’s father, Stephen Mikulak, brought it up. They are in the same orthopedic practice in Newport Beach.

“Little pressure there … I have his dad in the room,” Forman said, smiling. “And he’s going, ‘You know, Scott, if you mess up, all his hopes and dreams of being an Olympic champion are out the window.’”

Forman joked, saying: “Just to calm myself down. I said, ‘They’re his hopes and dreams, not mine.’”

The two orthopedic surgeons were recalling the conversation Thursday in Mikulak’s office, joking some more and laughing about it. This was the surgery in the fall that kept Sam out of the World Championships but allowed him the time to rehabilitate his left ankle and his partially torn Achilles’ tendon.

Stephen espoused the long-term view (the Olympics) over the short-term (World Championships) with the surgery and PRP (platelet rich plasma) injections for the tendon. The long-term strategy paid off with Sam making his second U.S. Olympic team, finishing with the top all-around result at the trials in June in St. Louis.

Not only did the doctor know best  … but so did the father.

“A lot of doctors don’t want to treat their family at all,” Stephen said. “I think that seems weird because I have a vested interest in making sure he does perfectly. And I trust what I know. I wouldn’t want anybody else to treat my family.

“Some people don’t want to do it. They don’t want to be the one to make a mistake on their family, maybe. I want to be the one to make a mistake if somebody makes a mistake.”

Injuries are practically a fact of life in the sport of gymnastics, so it is especially beneficial to have a father who is not only a leading orthopedic surgeon but once a top collegiate gymnast as well.

“I know what it’s like to be a gymnast and to be hurt,” said Stephen, who competed at California.

Further proof about the inevitability of injuries was underscored Friday when USA Gymnastics announced that John Orozco had withdrawn from the Olympics because of an injury to his left knee at the team’s training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Orozco did it on a horizontal bar dismount, suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus. His injury withdrawal opened the door for Danell Leyva, who was named to the team.

Leyva, a bronze medalist in the all-around event at the 2012 Olympics, had his own injury scare in the lead-up to the nationals and the Olympic trials. He tried to break up a fight at home between his two American bulldogs and his left calf paid the price. The dog bite wounds curtailed his training and it was the second such time he was victimized trying to stop the dogs from fighting.

Orozco and Leyva were hardly the only ones with compelling back stories on the team. The zigzag life journeys among the male gymnasts are numerous, and as Sam Mikulak, the four-time national champion, put it, “incredible ones.”

“Every one of these guys has a story to tell,” said the 23-year-old Mikulak, born and raised in Orange County. “There’s so much everyone has overcome. There’s no one that wants it more than these guys. That is really going to bring out the best in everyone.

“We know each other’s stories. We know what everyone has had to overcome. When you can really see what everyone is like: when they’re broken down. In a vulnerable state and then to be able to pick them up again. That’s what makes this such a special team.”

After his surgery, he turned into a pitchman -- on crutches. Mikulak put aside the disappointment of missing World Championships and went to a lunch place near his dad’s house, asking whether they were interested in stocking the energy drink from Sam’s company, MateBros.

“He turned something bad into something good and said, ‘Now I have time I can work on my business,’” Stephen said. “That helped promote his business.

“I had a little setup in my garage: rings and some parallel bars. He worked on some strength moves and he actually has a higher difficulty ring routine because he had time to work on getting strong in his upper body.”

Mikulak and his two youthful business partners, who founded MateBros, appear likable naturals for, say, a future appearance on CNBC’s “Shark Tank” with the likes of Mark Cuban.

“I would love to – even if they don’t pick up our deal,” Mikulak said. “It’s great promotion. Anything like that would be phenomenal.”

He added, smiling: “Who doesn’t like being on TV?”

Of course, he will be there soon enough, from Rio de Janeiro.

Stephen said he is hoping to surf in Rio with his 12-year-old grandson. Sam’s mother, Tina, who was also a gymnast at Cal, will be on hand at the Olympics, too.

Sam has seen footage of his father competing but not his mother.

“I don’t know if they had video of her, or maybe she just hasn’t shown me,” he said, smiling. “He [Stephen] was competing at Cal and I could see so much of myself in him. I think that was the cool part. 

“We look a lot alike … as far as that point of his life and the point I’m in right now. It was inspiring. My family has grown up around this sport and it’s definitely molded me into the person I am today. It’s in my blood.”

Lisa.dillman@latimes.com

Twitter: @reallisa

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