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There was a whole plan in place when MyKayla Skinner left the University of Utah last spring to return to full-time elite gymnastics training, dedicating herself to one last run at an Olympic team. Currently 23, making it to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 would be a feat itself in a sport that favors teenagers.
The hiatus was only supposed to last a year, and whether or not she made the Olympic team, Skinner always planned to return to Utah this fall. The endpoint was always fixed; today it’s the beginning Skinner’s unsure about.
“Where do I even start?” she laughs. It’s a Wednesday, which along with Sundays are Skinner’s days off from a busy training schedule that includes around 20 hours a week at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona, as well as personal training sessions to augment her strength, and physical therapy to keep nagging aches and pains at bay.
Things have come at Skinner almost nonstop since she left Utah. The elite season comes on the heels of the NCAA championships, meaning Skinner had no time to catch her breath from January to October of 2019, a stint that ended with a trip to Stuttgart, Germany, as the alternate for the world championships. And her busy schedule didn’t end there. Shortly after she returned home, her longtime boyfriend Jonas Harmer proposed, and the couple wed in Salt Lake City in November.
“I never got a break, and so that was really hard, so being able to come down a bit was super nice,” she says of their winter honeymoon in Thailand. Finally recharged, she was sprinting toward the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, scheduled for June in St. Louis, when COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.
One More Shot
Skinner has twice come close to making the Olympic team. As a 15-year-old in 2012, she was in the top 20 in the U.S., and watched the “Fierce Five” go on to win the United States’ first Olympic team title since 1996. Energized by her results, she carried on, making the world championships team in 2014, winning gold with the team and picking up a bronze on vault.
In 2016, Skinner finished fourth in the all-around at the Olympic trials, but was overlooked for the five-person team by the selection committee. Instead, the Utah commit was designated one of three replacement athletes that traveled to Rio de Janeiro but did not ultimately compete. This time, she had a front row seat as the “Final Five” flipped to a second consecutive Olympic team gold.
By then she was 19, and unsure about what to do next. “Do I go to college? Do I continue to train elite and just go straight for the next Olympics?” she remembers thinking. The intense training for the Rio Games had taken a toll, and she felt burned out. “I was just so over gymnastics at that point that I was like, I just need something different. I want to try something different, make new friends,” she said. Ultimately, she moved to Salt Lake City.
Competing every weekend and being part of the strong Ute team and supported by a coalition of diehard Utah gymnastics fans reminded Skinner why she was a gymnast in the first place. The city and the team atmosphere agreed with her, and she flourished, building a reputation as an ultra-reliable performer with one of the highest hit ratios in the NCAA.
Between 2017 and 2019, she hit 161 consecutive routines (her downfall came on the uneven bars at the 2019 NCAA regional.) With one season of eligibility left, she has already amassed two NCAA titles and a school record 26 All-America awards.
MyKayla Skinner competes at the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 11, 2019 in Kansas City, Mo.
For many elite gymnasts, the NCAA is a conduit out of the sport, and even if some reach the apex of their abilities in their final years of college, very few return to elite. The opposite was true for Skinner; training and competing for Utah gave her the physical and mental break from elite gymnastics that she needed, but also kept her in shape for a potential return.
“Going to Utah really helped me regain the love for the sport,” she said. “In elite you’re always getting pushed and it’s always like, big skills, difficulty! It was really fun trying something different and going back to the basics.”
It also helped her polish her execution, which had taken a backseat to cultivating the difficulty for which she is known. Because earning good scores in the NCAA hinges on performing flawless-looking routines, elites scale back their difficulty when they get to college. Skinner did too—just not as much as everybody else. Even as a freshman, she entertained the idea of one day returning to elite gymnastics for one more try at the Olympic Games.
Little by little, the hunger came back. After the NCAA championships last April, she took the plunge.
“My body was feeling so great, I was like, I should give this one more shot,” she said. “The Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I was so close last time. I’ve really just got to try and have no regrets down the road.”
‘Is This Really Happening?’
Skinner’s renewed love of gymnastics is not so strong that she wasn’t taken aback by the Games postponement. She was driving to practice on March 24 when Harmer called with the news. Though she had been expecting an announcement of that kind, she hadn’t thought it would come so soon.
“I went to gym, had a good practice, got my anger out. And then the next day I just wanted to cry the whole day, curled up in my room in a little ball,” she recalled. “Just like, ‘Is this really happening?’ Like, ughhhh.”
In the days to come, Skinner’s coaches Lisa Spini and Bruce McGehee thumbed through the code of points, enthusiastically pointing out all the skills Skinner could learn with an extra year of preparation. While Spini made notes, Skinner sat dully, thinking about all the work she’d already put in and how hard another 12 months of training would be.
Skinner—and teammate Simone Biles—will be 24 come summer 2021. They would be the oldest female gymnasts to make a U.S. Olympic team in 17 years.
For the first time since leaving Utah, she questioned her decision to return to elite.
“It was just so devastating and so hard to think that this really did happen,” she said. “I was so close to getting to that point of being ready for Olympic trials and to push myself and now we have a whole year left to train. The whole thing was just like, I can’t believe this is happening. I was like, do I really want to do this?”
After some soul searching, she decided the answer was yes.
“I just felt like I didn’t want to let anybody down and I was so scared and in the back of my mind I was like, I’ve come so far that I can’t give up now and not continue for the Olympics,” said Skinner, who still plans to complete her final year of NCAA eligibility after the Tokyo Games. “It was a mess. It was hard, but I decided that this was the route for me, the thing I needed to do, you know?”
On her journey, Skinner is accompanied by new high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster, who started the role in 2017.
“It’s really nice to have Tom and his support through it all,” Skinner said. “He’s really helped me a lot with this comeback, and it’s cool to see that people actually care about you and care about your gymnastics and want the best for you.”
Her other support system is Harmer, who accompanies her to training when he’s not working and films practices for her newly launched YouTube channel. An adventure and outdoors enthusiast, Harmer has also made sure Skinner has more in her life than just gymnastics—arranging hikes, horseback rides and trips to a nearby lake on her off days.
Skinner’s gymnastics career will end eventually, even if it takes a year longer than she initially thought. For now the prospect of the Olympic Games keeps her going, but the thought that she won’t have to worry about one day it is equally appealing.
“I’m excited to never have to have that feeling again, of doing elite gymnastics, because it’s hard!” she exclaimed, laughing. “You put so much pressure on yourself and it’s so stressful. It’s a lot on my body. It takes a toll. I’m just excited that one day I don’t have to worry about it anymore, but I’m sure when that time comes I’ll be missing it—when I’m in my 30s.”