"Being out there with these guys was the most fun I've ever had," three-time Olympian Sam Mikulak told PEOPLE

Advertisement

Right after the U.S. men's gymnasts finished their qualifying at the Tokyo Summer Olympics on Saturday night and made it to the finals, Sam Mikulak gathered his teammates for a huddle.

He had something he wanted to say.

"Sam was just super grateful for us," Brody Malone remembered later. "He said he'd never been on a team like this and he'd just had the time of his life out there and that it was great to have a team like this."

In the Olympics in which Mikulak has competed so far, Team USA, after winning back-to-back men's teams medals in 2004 and 2008, has come no closer than fifth.

They may well end up just off the podium again this year, after finishing behind Japan, China and Russia in qualifying.

But if so, what?

There were strong individual showings, too. And it was a mark of U.S.A.'s joy as a team — and perhaps, though no one quite said it this way, their success — that the nerves of the world's biggest sporting stage did not darken the thrill of competing together and competing well.

"Honestly, we don't need to be focused, we just need to enjoy the process," Mikulak, a three-time Olympian and the team's elder, told PEOPLE after qualifying as he spoke with reporters.

"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. "We've really been able to make the most out of this experience and it's brought us a lot closer than, I think, I've ever been able to get close with my previous teammates. And being out there with these guys was the most fun I've ever had, for my Olympic experience."

Men's gymnastics qualifying
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.
| Credit: Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images
Men's gymnastics qualifying
Team USA's Shane Wiskus 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.
| Credit: Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

By the end of the night, in addition to the team's fourth-place finish qualifying them for the final, four of the men's gymnasts also qualified for individual events: Brody Malone on the horizontal bar; Mikulak on parallel bars; Yul Moldauer on the floor; and Alec Yoder, who competed individually rather than on the team, on the pommel horse. (Shane Wiskus qualified with the team.)

Malone and Mikulak also qualified to compete in the all-around finals.

There were setbacks, sure, Wiskus said. He himself had stumbled in the vault and said the team could do a "little bit better in the landings department" and work on their dismounts.

"We did a really good job staying together as a team and picking up each other if there was a mistake," he told PEOPLE. But, at day's end, "I was really happy with the competition."

Yoder had carried his own expectations — sent in as a specialist on the pommel horse. "Obviously I'm in Tokyo for one routine. If I didn't do well tonight, I would have done one routine in Tokyo," he told reporters.

He said he spoke with Mikulak beforehand: The latter gymnast, now 28, has become vocal about shifting his perspective on 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," Mikulak said he told Yoder. "And I think that's something I wish 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."

He knows from darkness.

As Mikulak prepared to compete on the road to Tokyo, he told PEOPLE in 2019: "Gymnastics was once everything to me. It was what made me happy. It was everything that I was trying to be. I put 100 percent and cut out all these things in my life just to be what I thought was the perfect gymnast."

"I need to have a support of a happy life and then I can add gymnastics on top of that and to take the stress off and to help me be better at gymnastics," Mikulak said then, "because when I'm only happy because my practice is going well and my competition is going well, you have no other substance or no other leg to stand on."

Men's gymnastics qualifying
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.
| Credit: Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images
Men's gymnastics qualifying
Team USA's Yul Moldauer competes in the floor event of the artistic gymnastics men's qualification during the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Saturday.
| Credit: Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images

Flash-forward to Saturday and he says: "This year … 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 and 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."

The quintet of gymnasts sometimes lapses into visible silliness: Moldauer, name-dropping Russell Westbrook, likes to mime rocking a baby after a particularly good routine and Mikulak says that, as they warmed up to compete, they listened to a musical blender in the practice gym — part Bruce Springsteen ("Born in the U.S.A.,") part Tim McGraw, part rap and techno.

"This is what we dream of … I am nervous, but it's a good nervous," Moldauer told reporters. "This is what I've dreamed of my entire life. You can either run with it or let the nerves affect you."

Reflecting on his pommel horse routine, Yoder sounded as sanguine: like he was discussing the philosophy of himself.

"I knew I was in my rhythm … I wasn't sitting there thinking, Oh this is a great set. But I was thinking, like, I'm in my rhythm. I just gotta keep going, keep going, keep going," he said.

Men's gymnastics qualifying
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.
| Credit: Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

What happens next? Men's gymnastics finals begin Monday.

But, Mikulak says, grinning as he does: Team USA would need to perform flawlessly, and their rivals horribly, for any real hope of a medal. Even so. "We're just gonna hope for the best in ourselves and wherever we land, we're just gonna be proud of the performances we put out there," he said.

Think of it like this, says Moldauer:

"Gymnastics is a fun sport because no matter what team is the best or the worst, anything can happen that day. So we just gotta walk in there as a team and just go one event at a time and see how it rolls. I think Japan, Russia and China are all so focused on each other that, y'know — do you believe in miracles? And I think that's the approach we're gonna get."

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