Sam Mikulak, Charlie Buckingham and Maddie Musselman
Rio de Janeiro’s “girl from Ipanema” may have left her mark by walking along a beach, but last summer, 33 athletes from Orange County chose a different tack when they swam, sailed, raced and wrestled their way into the history books.
For most of us, the 2016 Summer Olympics was a TV miniseries. In an editing booth somewhere, producers decided which portions we ought to see; and we chose when and how to watch. Pause for a snack. Mute to take a call. Fast forward through the commercials. Resume after dinner.
Experiencing the Games live and in person, especially as a participant, is a whole different story. As we learned from three of Team USA’s hometown heroes just a few months after the closing ceremonies, the passage of time has a way of zooming in on the powerful moments that will be forever etched in stone.
Vaulting to the Top
“It was the most mind-blowing experience of my life,” said gymnast Sam Mikulak of his first trip to the Olympics in 2012. “I was in awe the whole time, like a kid in a candy store.”
Mikulak, who grew up in Huntington Beach and Newport Coast and attended Corona del Mar High School, was only 19 at the time. But, with gymnast parents who introduced him to the sport by enrolling him in Mommy and Me classes at age two, he’d been preparing for the big show nearly all his life.
“I got more serious when I turned seven,” he said of his athletic aspirations. “I still love the adrenaline rush and the chance to show off good work. It gives me a sense of purpose.” For gymnasts everywhere, the quest for Olympic gold represents the pinnacle of their careers, as it’s the only time that the sport grabs people’s full attention. “You know you have to make the most of it,” said Mikulak.
It is perhaps this collective sense of urgency that draws gymnasts of all nationalities together during the Olympics. While each team plays to win, these athletes forge easy friendships with their competitors.
“Gymnastics is a small world,” said Mikulak. “You want everyone to do the best that they can, and you land where you land. But in the end, you’ve built relationships and you have a place to stay when you’re far from home.”
“My parents gave me every opportunity to be successful and I have them to thank. I feel really blessed.” — Sam Mikulak
When the now-seasoned 23-year-old boarded the plane for Rio, he approached the Olympics more like he would a business. “I knew what to expect, I’d trained for it and I was able to put 100 percent into the competition.” Team USA Gymnastics finished fifth in the world, and it’s safe to say that each member has set his or her sights on 2020.
Mikulak is no exception; after a brief return to Southern California following the closing ceremonies, he hopped on a bus and began a two-month road trip with Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions.
At the same time, he is focusing on the long term. Mikulak and his best friend are nurturing MatéBros, the tea company they started upon graduation from the University of Michigan, and scouting locations for a gym in Southern California.
“It’s hard to find even one passion; to find two and pursue them simultaneously is a dream,” he said. “I’m only 23, and I’ve traveled the world and gotten so many accolades. My parents gave me every opportunity to be successful, and I have them to thank. I really feel blessed.”
“It feels good to be in one spot,” said Charlie Buckingham, 27, as he settled into SoCal life following his Olympic début in Rio. Being in one spot must feel strange for a sailor who spends most of his time hiked out on a Laser, a one-person dinghy designed by Canada’s Bruce Kirby, whose initial sketch is known as the “million dollar doodle.”
The Laser became a men’s Olympic class boat at the 1996 Summer Games; Buckingham’s achievements earned him the lone Team USA Laser spot in Rio.
Growing up on the Newport Beach Peninsula with a surfer/sailor dad and an athletic mom, Buckingham fell in love with the water early on. Through Harbor Day School, Newport Harbor High School and following college at Georgetown University, he practically lived at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club as he pursued competitive ocean sailing. Buckingham began his career crewing for his father, so the sport was always synonymous with competition. When he chose single-handed (one-person) sailing, it was the emphasis on individual performance that tipped the scales.
“It’s about the pure enjoyment and more about the challenge. In single-handed sailing there’s no one to blame but yourself.” — Charlie Buckingham
“I’ve always felt comfortable in the ocean,” said Buckingham, “but it’s less about the pure enjoyment and more about the challenge. In single-handed sailing there’s no one to blame but yourself.”
Whereas gymnasts view the Olympics as the Holy Grail, sailors compete for the trinity, with the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race added into the mix. For Buckingham, though, these races, defined as they are by team effort and significantly looser design parameters that can greatly influence the outcome, can’t match the one-person dinghy.
The Olympic regatta lasts six days. For the first five days, 46 athletes compete in two races a day, racking up points based on their place at the finish line. The top 10 move on to the Olympic finals on day six. Buckingham’s cumulative score in Rio placed him 11th, so he missed the final race. “It’s OK,” he said calmly. “It’s just more motivation for next time. My goal is still to win an Olympic gold medal.”
It Takes a Team
It took just 18 years for Maddie Musselman to get from Children’s Hospital Orange County (CHOC) to center podium at the Olympics. The Newport Beach native credits sibling rivalry (her big sister started it) with inspiring her water polo career, although she had already fallen for water sports when she joined the swim team in her Port streets neighborhood.
Unlike Charlie Buckingham, who was drawn to his sport’s individual nature, Musselman was fascinated by water polo’s combination of teamwork and physical and mental toughness.
“It’s a mixture of soccer, basketball and swimming,” she said. “Not only is water polo a strategic game, but every team comes at it with a different plan, so every game is unique.”
Musselman loves that the sport benefits from a range of talents and body types, noting that the strength of the U.S. team is due in large part to the varied shapes, sizes and skill sets of its players.
Although her competitive nature was in evidence by age four, Musselman’s quest for an Olympic medal took shape when she was admitted to the Olympic Development Program and, the following summer, at 15 years old, trained with the Senior National Team. “I was told that I might not have the chance to make the Olympic team, but that only challenged me more. I made the [Olympic] roster in 2015, and that’s when the dream started to come true.”
“I was ready for whatever was coming. The experience was definitely not what I expected, but it ended up being awesome.” — Maddie Musselman
Musselman will remember her first trip to the Olympics as a lesson in preparedness. The four returners—members of the 2012 team—filled the rookies with anecdotes and advice, an insurance policy against mishaps.
“They prepped us mentally for things that could go wrong, in the pool and logistically,” said Musselman. “Whether it was a transportation problem or losing a game and ending up in a certain bracket, I was ready for whatever was coming. The experience was definitely not what I expected, but it ended up being awesome.”
Post-Olympic life wasn’t so bad, either; Musselman and many of her teammates reunited at the White House, where they and other Olympians met President Obama and received his thanks and congratulations.
Today, Musselman is halfway through her freshman year at UCLA. She’s aiming for med school—perhaps pediatrics or nursing—but even though she came home with a gold medal, she isn’t retiring her Olympic swimsuit. “When you achieve a goal, you set a new one,” she said. “I’m not done. I want to do it again.”