Former Michigan star Mikulak wins gold, credits tea

Stephen Wade
Associated Press

Toronto — American gymnast Sam Mikulak won his second gold medal in the Pan Am Games on Monday, and the former Michigan standout is almost certain to be in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics a year from now contending for a medal.

Not bad for starters. But he says his real passion, the secret behind his growing fame, lies with a herbal tea called "mate" (pronounced MA-tay), which is ever-present in Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil.

Argentina-born Pope Francis is often seen drinking it, and Albert Einstein was reportedly a big fan of the beverage, which is officially Argentina's national drink alongside wine.

"If I ever go there to the Vatican, I'll know he (Pope Francis) drinks it," Mikulak said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Mikulak, who won gold medals in the team and overall competition, came close to Olympic medals three years ago in London — placing fifth in both the vault and team competition. On Monday, his victory in the all-around ended a 28-year drought in the event for the Team USA.

He finished with an 89.650, while Cuba's Manrique Larduet won silver with 89.600. Jossimar Calvo Moreno of Colombia took the bronze with an 89.400 total.

Mikulak credits much of his success to drinking the infusion, whose complete name is "yerba mate."

The tea-like drink is traditionally brewed in a hollowed-out, dried gourd and sipped from the gourd through a metal straw, known in Spanish as a "bombilla."

It's ordinary to see people in Argentina or Uruguay walking the streets with a thermos of hot water and the gourd, prepared to brew the infusion almost anywhere. You can even see motorcyclists lugging around a thermos, tucked under an arm or hanging from a shoulder strap.

"I think it helps your mind and brain mellow and focus a bit more than normal," Mikulak explained. "That's why I drink it as an athlete."

The yerba mate shrub is grown extensively on plantations in northern Argentina and southern Brazil. The dry leaves contain caffeine, other natural herbs and look a bit like green tea, with a similar bitter taste.

Mikulak said he was introduced to it by chance by friends in high school in southern California.

"I went to practice afterwards and just had a phenomenal day," he said. "I felt energized, I felt in tune with my mind and body, and I felt very controlled over my emotions. It's perfect for gymnastics. You don't ever want to get too hyped. You want to have the calm middle — not too relaxed, not too hyped."

He's been sold ever since, which is an understatement.

Mikulak, who graduated a few months ago from Michigan, has teamed up with several friends from high school — Alex Anunciation and Jordan Gaarenstroom. They set up a company to can the tea and sell it online. Mikulak said it was Anunciation in high school who first introduced him to the drink as a way of "relaxing with friends and taking a break from the crazy life you might be living."

Sales so far are limited, though the plan is to eventually sell in shops and stores.

It goes under the name "MateBros," which bills itself as an "energy drink alternative."

"It's huge in South America, and the U.S. doesn't have it at all," Mikulak explained. "So maybe what we need is to Americanize yerba mate and put it in a can. Some traditional people might not like the change, but they can keep drinking it like always."

Mikulak said he has dreams for the up-start business, although he acknowledged the possibility of failure, similar to a stumble by a gymnast in a well-practiced routine.

"I've fallen on my routines," he said. "After, I've gotten up and had to do better the next time. That's the mentality we've had our entire lives, and that's a mentality entrepreneurs have."