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February 25, 2013 - Image 10

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The Michigan Daily, 2013-02-25

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2B - February 25, 2013

The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

Life beyond the Olympic rings

D raped outside an apart- sent to the Olympics.
ment window high "That's 100 percent!" Mikulak
above Olympic Village, chirped from across the table.
two flags fluttered silently, lifted Caesar nodded, stooped his head
and tossed by a brisk London and grinned. Finding a coach
breeze. One flag bore the green was never his biggest roadblock,
and red of Bangladesh; the other, though.
Michigan's block 'M.' Caesar's road to London all
Syque Caesar sat inside that hinged on an e-mail.
apartment, perched on the edge of After making headlines on
his checkered Olympic bedspread, New Year's Eve 2011 by earning
and tried to somehow explain the first gold medal in Bangladesh
how he got international gymnastics history
there. The at an event in Tokyo, Caesar was
weight of the approached by representatives of
essence of the the National Olympic Committee
Olympics was of Bangladesh, who asked Caesar
swiftly sink- if he would consider representing
ing in: per- Bangladesh as an individual per-
forming for former at the Olympics since the
pride, for fam- STEPHEN J. country does not field a full team.
ily, for coun- NESBITT He readily agreed, and the
try. He simply paperwork was sent to the Inter-
couldn't grasp national Olympic Committee
it then, not there in Olympic Vil- (IOC). In April, Caesar finally got
lage, with world-class athletes the email. The IOC had approved
behind every door, around every him.
corner. Nearly recovered from a tear
Now, six months after Caesar of the long head of his right bicep,
- now a senior on the Michigan Caesar, training in Ann Arbor,
men's gymnastics team - junior tore the long head of his left
gymnast Sam Mikulak and junior bicep just a week before London.
swimmer Connor Jaeger returned ("That's a pretty important thing
from competing in the 2012 Lon- to have," he said.) The injury
don Olympics, they are steering kept him from performing on the
top-three programs at Michigan pommel horse and the rings, but
that are in line to make serious he was still able to compete on
national-title runs. four apparatuses. In qualifica-
With their eyes firmly on that tions, Caesar landed all four of his
prize, the trio paused for just a events, taking 27th on the parallel
day last week to relive its journey bars, 29th on the floor exercise
from student-athlete to Olympian and 50th on the horizontal bar.
and back again last summer. "4-for-4 at the Olympics? I

SYQUE CAESAR: A CLICK AWAY

couldn't be any happier," he said.
His words lingered in the air
just a moment longer this time as

Quazi Caesar didn't even try he thoughtbackto the flag draped
to wipe awaythe tears washing outside his window. He wasn't
down his face. He was beam- just representing himself, his
ing, too, as he watched from the family or even his country.
stands as his son, Syque, entered "I can honestly saythat if I ALLISON FARRAN'/Daly
behind the Bangladeshbanner didn't come to this university,
duringthe opening ceremonies at there's no way I'd be able to be,-;
Olympic Stadium. at the Olympics," he said. "I took
The 21-year-old gymnast, one the block 'M' with me all the way"
of five individuals representing to London and made thatvis-
Bangladesh at the Games, was ible. I always thought: Because
capturedby BBC cameras and of Michigan, I've been able tox
broadcasted to the world - his achieve my dream of competingat
arms spread wide, a charming the Olympics."
smile splashed across his face.
With his son circlingthe track SAM MIKULAK: GOLDEN BOY
below, Quazi, a former member,
of the Bangladesh national soc- Caesar and Mikulak couldn't
cer team, could relate. Even as possibly have piloted more differ-
it played out in front of him, he ent paths to the Olympics.
could hardly believe the arc of his "It was a little-kid dream of"
son's journey to London. mine to go to the Olympics,"g
It was during a routine trip to Mikulak said.
the mall in Port Saint Lucie, Fla. That little kid started gym-
in 1996 that Quazi noticed a flyer nastics at age 2, due in large part
for gymnastics training. He asked to the influence of his parents,
if his son wanted to give it a try, Stephen and Tina Mikulak, who 'r
and the 6-year-old quickly agreed. were once gymnasts at California.r
A decade later, when the son had After breaking both anklesy
a falling outwith a club coach, a year before the Olympics, he
Quazi stepped in. redoubled his focus on the all- TODD NEEDLE/Daily
"You know what?" Quazi around, which led to a whirlwind (From top) Senior Syque Caesar, junior Sam Mikulak and junior Connor Jaeger
asked. "I'll coach you." sophomore season. Mikulak each took different routes to reach the Olympics, but all roads led back to Michigan.
Caesar still smiles at the was the 2012 NCAA high-bar of the Olympics. Battlingthrough The vault, and the boyhood
memory. champion and runner-up in the an ankle injury that had limited charm, earned him a fifth-place
"Over the next two years, I all-around. He took silver on the him, Mikulak stepped onto the finish in the final - just out of
basicallytaught him howto coach parallel bars at the Visa Champi- runway and eyed the vault. medal contention, just enough
me," Caesar said. He would show onships in St. Louis in early June, Be explosive, he recited. incentive to keep the fire alive.
his father YouTube videos and then traveled to San Jose, Calif. After a deep breath, he bolted "That was a good note to end
tell him, "I've got to do this, and for the U.S. Olympic Trials. He down the stretch and started into on," Mikulak said.
it's got to look just like that. Just was named to the five-man team his handspring approach. Two Earlier, Mikulak and Team
be a spectator, and if it doesn't and trained in Colorado Springs, front flips later, his feet slammed USA faltered after a surprise first-
look like that, then tell me how to Colo. for almost three weeks the padding and held firm. He place finish in the qualifiers to
make it look like that." before flying to London. stuck it. Mikulak pumped his take fifth in the finals.
And it worked outnjust fine, Whew. fists twice, saluted the crowd, and "With the youngteam, we had
didn't it? For Quazi, that's one That little kid in Mikulak then walked over to plant a kiss our mistakes," Mikulak admitted.
student taught ... and one student showed through in the vault finals on the vault. The Olvmpics were a rapid

welcome into the public eye for
Mikulak. "I felt like we were on
a pedestal," he said. "We felt like
celebrities, somewhat." His Twit-
ter follower countballooned to
over 105,000. (Caesar noted that
he didn't quite get that boost)
Comingoff that high, though,
wasn't easy. That follower count
has tapered off to just over
83,000.
"I guess I'm not as exciting as I
once was," Mikulak joked.
Mikulak fully intends to make
another run at the Olympics in
2016. After he graduates in a year
and a half, Mikulak doesn't plan
to return to his sunny hometown
of Corona del Mar, Calif. He
wants to stay in Ann Arbor to
train.
"I feel like Michigan has done
so much for me, might as well stay
with what works," he said.
CONNOR JAEGER: THE EXTRA LAP
The prestigious hallway is
tucked deep into the recesses of
Canham Natatorium, where only
the athletes have passage. On
the wall is a swim cap from each
Michigan swimmer who has com-
peted atnthe Olympics.
Connor Jaeger walked that
hallway every day. He recognized
the history and tradition of the
program, and he never felt wor-
thy, really.
"I came to Michigan a nobody,"
Jaeger said.
But that nobody caught fire as
a sophomore. Like much of the
men's swimming and divingteam,
Jaeger traveled to the U.S. Olym-
pic Trials in Omaha, Neb. with a
chance to race for a spot on the
Olympic roster. Jaeger, though,
knew he had a better shot than
most.
Though he swam in the 200-,
400- and 1,500-meter freestyle
events at the Trials, his true
strength was the longer distance.
He wanted to reach the final in
the 400-meter, which he did by
placing in the top eight. And he
knew that one of the members of
his training group, comprised of
Jaeger, Sean Ryan, Ryan Feeley
and Matt Patton, had a legitimate
chance at securing one of the two
spots for 1,500-meter swimmers
on the Olympic roster.
"We were all really excited
to push each other," Jaeger said.
"We looked at it as ateam goal
and a team success if we got one
of us on the team instead of think-
ing of it as four people fighting for
one or two spots."
All four swimmers qualified
for the final, but it was Jaeger -
competing in the 1,500-meter for
just the fifth time in his career -
that got the most attention. In his
preliminary heat, Jaeger tapped
the wall second, but he lost count
of his laps and continued on, mak-
ing a turn and swimming a full
50 meters before realizinghis
mistake.
In the final, Jaeger certainly
didn't lose count, and when he
tapped the wall second after 15
laps, he punched his ticket to Lon-
don. Jaeger laughed when asked
to compare the Olympics to a Big
Ten meet.
"Well, at a college meet, there
are certainly people there cheer-
ing for you and people there
cheering against vou. But at the

Olympics a lotof people justgo to
watch the spectacle.
"No one was there wanting
Connor Jaeger to fail."
And fail he didn't. Jaeger was
the only American to reach the
final, and he placed sixth, 12
seconds out of bronze-medal posi-
tion.
"You can definitely feel a sense
of failure if you don'tget the
medal," Jaeger said. "But now,
looking back in hindsight, even
though I didn'tgeta medal, I
have to be happy with my perfor-
mance."
Jaeger still walks that Canham
hallway each day. When he reach-
es the end, he sees a sign that
hangs over the double doors.
"It's not every four years," it
reads. "It's every day."
His cap isn't on the wall just
yet, but it'll be affixed there soon
enough. He's proven his worth.

4

BACK TO MICHIGAN
Very few athletes reach the
pinnacle of their sports before
they even graduate from col-
lege. But Caesar, Mikulak and
Jaeger did exactly that. And then
they came back to earth, back to
Michigan. Somehow, that wasn't
a letdown.
Even after competing on the
world's largest stage, they had
Michigan on their minds.
"Right before we actually left,
Sam and I were both talking how
excited we were for the upcoming
NCAA season," Caesar said. "We
barelytalked about the Olympics
leading up to it, but more about
how cool the next NCAA season
was goingto be. So far, we've been
living up to it."
- They've all lived up to it. The
three Olympians have steered
their programs to top-three
national rankings and are gear-
ing up for a post-season stretch.
Though the Olympic medals elud-
ed them, a national championship
wouldn't be a bad compromise
for now.
"I think once we made the
Olympic team it was, 'Yes, we
have this accomplishment, but
there are other accomplishments
that we want to get, some acco-
lades we need to finish,"' Mikulak
said, taking his hand fromhis
varsity jacket to gesture toward
Caesar.
"We want to win a national
championship together. Having
two Olympians, our team is no
longer as young as it once was.
We're all a lot more experienced,
and we know we're capable of
beingthe best team in this coun-
try. We want to go and prove it."
The student-athletes under-
stand the recognition and value
they've brought Michigan, too,
but they see it as repayment.
"I think that it shows people
that the program we have here
works and that hard work will pay
off," Jaeger echoed.
In the meantime, though, the
Olympians are busy, just like you
and me. It's hard to fathom, isn't
it?
"I'm still a normal engineering
student doing homework every
night," Jaeger said with a laugh,
"just like everyone else."
- Nesbitt can be reached
atstnesbit@umich.edu

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