Of Maté and Michigan Blue

Bengali-American Syque Caesar, once captain of NCAA powerhouse University of Michigan, competed for Bangladesh in the 2012 Olympics. He chats with our Saqib Rahim about representing his country of ethnic origin, and the growth of gymnastics for South Asians.

By Saqib Rahim

Syque Caesar competing for Bangladesh in 2014. Photo from The Daily Star.

When you and I watch the Olympics, we watch superhumans. When Syque Caesar watches the Olympics, he watches people he knows. Friends like Sam Mikulak, his teammate from the University of Michigan’s gymnastics team, whose 7th-place finish in Rio was highest among the American men.

Colleagues like Akash Modi, who was in Rio as an alternate for the U.S. men, but who will return to captain Stanford University’s gymnastics team this fall, and will have Caesar as an assistant coach.

But Caesar is a lot more than his network. He’s a five-time All-American who captained the Michigan gymnastics team and won three NCAA championships there. He once held the NCAA record on parallel bars. And in 2012, he represented tiny Bangladesh in the London Olympics.

He “happily retired” well ahead of this year’s Olympics, because a) training to be an elite gymnast is a beast, and b) it’s pretty expensive to live in the Bay Area.

It’s an all-American, yet all-Bengali, story: kid from Florida finds his gift and reps his parents’ home country in the Olympic Games. Dat Winning caught up with him to hear that story, get his thoughts on the current American Olympic squad, and most importantly, figure out how the hell he persuaded his parents to let him do this.

DW: When did you start as a gymnast? And when did you get a sense that you had a knack for it?

SC: I started when I was 6 years old. I was just walking around the local shopping mall with my father when we saw a flyer for gymnastics classes — I was always very energetic and hyper as a kid; this allowed me to use up all that energy in a safe environment. Probably around 10 years old is when I really started showing a talent for the sport.

You went to University of Michigan, one of the best colleges in the country. But as a Bengali-American myself, I’ve got to ask you: How did your parents react when you said you wanted to do gymnastics there, and maybe make a career out of it? (Some background here: When I was in high school, my dad let me do certain extracurriculars — not sports — as long as I kept my GPA at a certain level. He made me sign a contract.)

Well I was actually going to go to the University of Florida, which is the best university in the state where I lived, but then when I got accepted into Michigan, it was a no-brainer. On top of that, I was able to continue doing gymnastics; otherwise I would have probably quit if I went to UF. My dad was a sportsman growing up — he was the youngest professional soccer player for the Bangladesh national team. He always pushed me to go as far as I can in the sport. In college I got my bachelor’s degree in communication studies and then got my master’s degree in sport management. It ended up being a perfect fit being a gymnastics coach at a university.

Your gymnastics game got you to the 2012 Olympics — where you chose to represent Bangladesh. How’d you decide who to represent? Was it a tough choice?

One of my coaches at Michigan suggested that I look in to the opportunities available for me by competing for Bangladesh. I was pretty competitive in gymnastics even at the US national level, but I definitely didn’t have what it took to make the US Olympic team. Competing for Bangladesh would allow me the opportunity to have more international experience as well potentially compete at the Olympics — a lifelong dream of mine – which it did. So the choice wasn’t a tough one.

Surely competing for Bangladesh brought you closer to your heritage. What was it like to carry that flag? Did you visit Bangladesh before or after the games? Did you get to enjoy any Bengali celebrity, like sponsorships or commercials?

Competing for Bangladesh absolutely brought me closer to my heritage – it was great! I was not the flag bearer for the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. [Reporter’s mistake: It was Mohammad Mahfizur Rahman, a swimmer. -SR] I visited Bangladesh at the end of 2011 prior to the Olympics for a gymnastics competition. The attention was nice and I think it brought some notice to the sport of gymnastics. I was still an NCAA gymnast so I could not receive sponsorships due to NCAA regulations.

It felt great to compete with red and green on my chest — I was honored and proud.

Syque Caesar (right) with Michigan Wolverines teammate Sam Mikulak. Photo from The Michigan Daily.

At Michigan, you were a teammate of Sam Mikulak, who’s on the U.S. Olympic team today. You even got to compete against your buddy in London. That’s cool, but what I really want to ask you about is yerba maté. Mikulak co-founded a company, Matébros, which markets this South American beverage as an energy drink. Bengalis tend to be strictly black-tea (heavy on the sugar) people. Are you a maté convert?

I’m actually a member of the company as well. I joined in November of 2014. I was never a big tea drinker to begin with. But in college, Sam and my other teammate Jordan Gaarenstroom would make batches of maté before a competition for our whole team to drink. It tasted great and got us all energized. Once we had exhausted our NCAA eligibility, they decided to take the next step and turn it [into] a real business, and that’s when I jumped in. I love it!

(Note: Mikulak placed 7th among the men in Rio, and he credits maté. From ESPN:

The charismatic Mikulak, on the other hand, said he jumped from 16th-place after the third rotation to a final seventh based on the pick-me-up he got from “slamming” his third can of his herbal energy drink, a business he and two friends started while he was at Michigan.

“I honestly believe that was the turning point for me,” said the 23-year-old, who added that he wants to compete in at least one more Olympics.

Akash Modi is one of the US’ alternates this year. And India’s sending its first-ever female gymnast, Dipa Karmakar. Did I miss the memo? Are South Asians the next big thing in gymnastics?

Well gymnastics has definitely been growing in India and I think that South Asians have a good body-type for gymnastics. It’s great that India sent their first-ever gymnast to the Olympics in Rio.

South Asians tend to be smaller in body size which makes gymnastics a sport that many can find themselves naturally talented in. I just found out that there was a female gymnast competing for Brazil that’s only 4’5!

Caesar is a pretty awesome name, not just because it makes you sound like a Roman emperor, but also compared to the more household choices like Khan, Ahmed, and of course Rahim. Have you ever gotten the story behind it? 

Caesar was my dad’s nickname growing up. He was the first C-section (or Caesarean section) born baby in Bangladesh. (Caesar clarified, “I’m not sure if he was the first in the country, but definitely in the family.”) The family name on my dad’s side is Quazi. So when he moved to the states he was Quazi Caesar.

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