By Lynn Rutherford | March 16, 2017, 12:16 p.m. (ET)
MyKayla Skinner poses for a portrait at Quixote Studios on Nov. 20, 2015 in Los Angeles.

 

After hitting a flawless floor routine at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center during the Red Rocks’ final regular-season meet against Stanford, MyKayla Skinner gained something she had never earned competing for the U.S. gymnastics’ squad: a perfect 10.

“Before I started, I was standing next to one of our assistant coaches, and I said, ‘I don’t know why, but I almost feel like the 10 is coming.’ I got emotional,” said Skinner, a freshman. “And when I saw the judges put up the 10, it was just the best moment ever.”

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The 2016 Olympic alternate, who contributed to team gold and won a balance beam bronze medal at the 2014 world championships, hit some great routines during her elite gymnastics’ days. But the sport abandoned the “perfect 10” in 2006 in favor of a judging system that assigns difficulty and execution values to skills, and has no maximum score.

Skinner, who joined the Red Rocks in October, now competes under NCAA rules, and things are very different.

“In elite, you are always chasing that next big skill,” Megan Marsden, Utah’s co-head coach, said. “In collegiate, (a routine) starts at a 9.5 and you have to have at least five-tenths (additional) difficulty value that would allow you to get to 10. We’re trying to pick the skills our athletes do really well and hit every time, because they need to do it like clockwork every weekend.”

Few do that as well as the 20-year-old Skinner, who has been named Pac-12 Conference Gymnast of the Week seven times and ranks second to Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols — another former world champion for Team USA — in the all-around standings.

“She has the most difficult floor routine in college gymnastics, and she is able to do it 10 times out of 10, week in and week out,” Marsden said. “She opens up with a double-double (two back somersaults and two twists) and lands it to a clean lunge. She is very determined; she wants to win, and she’s not afraid to work to win.”

The path to Utah had a few twists and turns. Skinner signed a letter of intent in November 2014, while her international career was in full swing. She placed second to Simone Biles at the 2015 American Cup and was an alternate on the 2015 world championships team.

The Arizona native deferred college for a year to make a final push for the Rio Games. She finished fourth in all-around at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials last July, but was not chosen as one of the “Final Five” who went on to win Olympic team gold. Still, she and two other alternates traveled to Rio and trained, and Skinner took part in the post-Olympic Kellogg’s Tour of Champions. She didn’t hit the Utah campus until October.

“At first, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but then I decided I’m going to do some of the (tour) stops and come to college,” Skinner said. “That’s the route I want to go, I want to get my degree. It was a lot to take in, especially to jump into the tour and take classes (online) the first six weeks of first semester. It was overwhelming, but it was worth it.”

Skinner quickly impressed her coach with both her work ethic and attitude.

“She didn’t just show up and think she deserved things,” Marsden said. “From the first day in our gym she did everything in training she needed to do, to show she should be in the all-around line-up.”

Skinner, who is majoring in communications with an eye on a career in journalism or sports broadcasting, enjoys college’s balance between academics and sport. NCAA rules limit athletes to 20 hours of training per week.

“Doing elite training seven hours a day was super hard, especially with school,” she said. “I would have to stay up until one in the morning to get homework done. Here, you can come to the gym, get your workout done, and then go home and study. I like it a lot better.”

Because the emphasis is on consistency, Marsden thinks the 20-hour per week rule works well.

“If we were teaching a lot of new skills, 20 hours per week would get difficult,” she said. “We’re trying to maintain skills, add performance quality and continue to clean up form and technique, so they hit their routines every time.”

Since Skinner built her reputation by mastering big skills, especially on floor and vault, the new emphasis took a bit of adjustment.

“I’ve always been the one who has wanted to throw the big skills, and college is definitely about perfection,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect. After a while, it was kind of nice, because in elite it was always hard for me to work on every little detail in form and everything. Now I’m able to work on that and go out there and have fun with my gymnastics.”

Another plus is the Huntsman Center crowd. Utah gymnastics has the highest average attendance in women’s college sports nearly every year, drawing 15,000 fans and then some. The crowd is so raucous, it often drowns out the long-suffering announcers.

“I remember we had a preview and I thought it was great, and everyone was like, ‘Just wait until the season starts, the crowd is way bigger and louder, it’s just so much fun,’” Skinner said. “Throughout the season it just grows. I remember when we competed against UCLA, and I got to see (2016 Olympian) Madison Kocian, and she said, ‘It’s like the Olympic Trials. It’s crazy how many people come here.’”

“It’s a gift we can give all of the young women in our program, that feeling of having 15,000 people explode in cheers when you stick a landing,” Marsden said.

Utah, ranked fifth in the country, moves into post-season competition on March 18 with the Pac-12 Championships, held at Stanford. From there, it’s on to regional championships and the NCAA championships in mid-April. There, individual all-around medals and individual apparatus medals are also on the line.

Skinner and her teammates — including senior Baely Rowe, who is ranked seventh in the all-around — will fight to win Utah’s first NCAA title since 1995. After that, Skinner is undecided about whether she will return to her home gym, Desert Lights in Chandler, Arizona, to train for a return to international scene.

“Getting ready for the post-season is my focus,” she said. “I don’t really know what I want to do yet. There is still so much going on. I just want to take it day by day.”

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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