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Sports & Recreation

It's Been A Long Road To The Tokyo Olympics For Utah Gymnast MyKayla Skinner

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University of Utah
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Former University of Utah gymnast MyKayla Skinner earned a spot in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics where she'll compete in the individual round on floor or vault.

Former University of Utah gymnast MyKayla Skinner can relate to the status of Kara Eaker, an incoming Utah freshman, as an alternate on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team at the Tokyo Olympics. When Skinner was an alternate in the 2016 Olympics, however, she wasn’t dealing with COVID-19.

The Tokyo Olympics have garnered extra attention because of the pandemic. Eaker, one of four alternates on the U.S. team, tested positive this week and is unlikely to compete in the Olympics.

Skinner recalled the travails of being an alternate in 2016 at the age of 19 before enrolling at Utah that fall.

“It’s just super hard and being out there with the team and not being able to compete. It’s kind of brutal in a way,” she said before this year’s Olympic trials in St. Louis.

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University of Utah
Skinner has spent the last two years away from the U training and competing with an eye toward the Tokyo Olympics.

When Skinner, who’s from Gilbert, Arizona, outside Phoenix, made a decision to return to elite competition in 2019. She left the University of Utah’s Red Rocks after three seasons and was determined to avoid the status as an alternate in her quest to make it back to the Olympics.

She added before this year’s trials, “This time around I’m feeling like I’m ready. I know what to expect. I feel like it’ll be so much better being with the team and being a part of it.”

The past two years turned out to be a long road for Skinner. It started with the 2019 U.S. Classic and was followed by that year’s U.S. national championships.

And that year was eventful in Skinner’s personal life as well.

After her eighth-place finish at the national championships, she capped off 2019 by getting engaged and married in the fall.

But an unexpected detour cropped up last winter when Skinner had her own hardship due to the pandemic. She announced through social media that she had been hospitalized with pneumonia because of COVID-19. In addition to last year’s postponement of the Tokyo games, everything was put on hold again.

After resuming her training, Skinner took a big step with an invitation from USA Gymnastics to compete in the Olympic trials after a ninth-place at this year’s U.S. national championships.

“Most people can’t even say they make it to one [Olympic trials], so this is such an honor to even be here and to make it this far,” she said from St. Louis. “Especially after everything we’ve been through. It’s been crazy.”

NCAA Gymnastics:  Penn State vs Utah Red Rocks
University of Utah
After three seasons with the University of Utah's Red Rocks gymnastics team, Skinner turned her focus back onto elite gymnastics in pursuit of a spot on the 2021 U.S. team. She says the Tokyo games will be her last competition.

In June, record crowds filed into the Dome at America’s Center, once home to the NFL’s since-departed St. Louis Rams. Two rounds of competition were held for the Olympics gymnastics trials. Though the weekend’s biggest ovations were reserved for superstar Simone Biles, the happiest gymnast in the end could arguably have been Skinner.

It came down to her and Grace McCallum, another incoming freshman at the University of Utah, for the final spots on the team. Tom Forster, the U.S. team manager, decided on McCallum for the four all-around events — vault, floor exercise, balance beam and uneven bars — and Skinner for either the floor exercise or vault as an individual.

“Just a couple of tenths difference between them,” said Forster. “Looking at the whole two-day process, and U.S. championships as well, it seemed appropriate to go in rank order, so that’s what we did.”

That suited Skinner. It meant that she would not repeat as an alternate.

But there’ll be one big thing missing from what the gymnasts heard at the trials and the U.S. championships: a crowd. They already knew their families couldn’t travel to Tokyo because of COVID-19 concerns and, though the official announcement that there would be no spectators came later, Skinner was already aware of the possibility.

“It’s going to be so weird not having fans, not having family,” said Skinner. “My husband [Jonas] said, ‘Out of all the Olympics you’re going to go for, it had to be this one.’ It is kind of crazy with everything that’s happened.”

After all of Skinner’s twists and turns, she announced a change in her college plans after the trials. She had one year left with the Utah Red Rocks, but says that the Olympics will mark her last gymnastics competition.

She knows though that with the arrivals of McCallum and Eaker this fall, the future is bright for the University of Utah gymnastics program.

Even in an unsettling year.

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