Enterprising Athletes: Sam Mikulak

The US gymnast tells us how he combines training and competition with running his own herbal tea company

Flipping, twisting, spinning, swinging, tumbling and vaulting requires a great deal of energy, as any elite-level gymnast will attest. With this in mind, American gymnast and four-time US all-around champion Sam Mikulak took action, adding an entrepreneurial hat to his day job as a world-class athlete.

Partnering with friends and fellow University of Michigan gymnasts, Mikulak helped to launch a beverage company called MatéBros. Their sole product is a yerba mate tea – an energy-boosting brew, originally from South America. The roots of MatéBros go back to Mikulak’s high school gymnastics days in Corona del Mar, California.

“We just wanted clean, healthy energy instead of all those sugary energy drinks or really fattening creamy coffees – we stumbled across yerba mate tea and started drinking it before our practices and competitions,” he explains.

The young entrepreneur says that yerba mate – which comes from the naturally caffeinated and nourishing leaves of the South American rainforest holly tree – possesses the strength of coffee and the health benefits of tea, while bolstering energy and nutrition.

“In college, our team-mates kept asking if we could make it for them and as more and more people wanted it, we realised we needed to up our production levels. We decided to do the big business thing, so we reached out to distribution partners and started MatéBros.”

Capital for the first batch of MatéBros yerba mate tea came from an online crowd-funding campaign that concluded at the start of 2015, raising more than USD 40,000.

“We were able to mass produce and get it out to the public, who seem to be asking for more,” Mikulak says, noting that while company profits aren’t directly being used to fund their own personal training, some revenue has been allocated to benefitting the wider gymnastics community.

“We put our funds back into the company to try and grow it, but we sponsored a bunch of athletes at one competition because we were dropped by our own sponsors after the Olympic year. It’s just a little way to give back to the community and the sport.”

Although trying to juggle the demands of elite-level sport with running a business sounds like a challenge, Mikulak says he has been able to manage his time efficiently between the dual pursuits, while also relying on his four partners.

“At first it was a lot of work, but it was all exciting, all fun, because we were doing it with a bunch of friends,” he recalls.

Mikulak finished seventh in the all-around, fourth in the high bar and fifth as part of the team event at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, but suffered an Achilles injury in February this year which seriously disrupted his training. Despite the setback, Mikulak reveals that his business endeavours helped keep him busy during those tough times away from training and competition.

“Since I was back home in California where our home base is, I was able to partake and be a little bit more hands on,” he explains. “It was definitely a good way for me to get my head back in the game and be productive instead of just sitting at home recovering and doing nothing.”

In addition to providing another focus during his down-time, the business-oriented gymnast believes there is much to be gained for aspiring athlete entrepreneurs. “You’re not going to be any more famous than while you’re doing your sport, so don’t put things off until you’re done with sport,” he advises. “That’s the wrong time to do it” .

“Anything is possible – you just have to get out make calls and talk to people. It’s not that hard – I think people build up the process to be much more effort and work than it really is. It really is just communicating well and that is something any athlete should be able to accomplish. If you want something, you just have to market yourself towards the right people to help you get what you want.”

In terms of goals and potential for MatéBros, Mikulak and crew have global ambitions to offer something that may be lacking across international sport.

“Our target is to reach out to help all athletes in the US and around the world who are ingesting bad products into their body for energy,” he explains. “We want to be the supplement for that and take it as big as we possibly can” .

“We want to stay true to simple, clean energy, and even if we get bought out at some point, that isn’t compromised from our main goals.”

The two-time Olympian is currently preparing for the upcoming World Championships in Montreal and also looking ahead to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where he could become the first male American all-around gymnastics gold medallist since Paul Hamm at Athens 2004.