Utah gymnastics: Utes’ MyKayla Skinner has always soared; now she’s having fun, too

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 03:06 pm

Fabulous freshman embraces leadership as Red Rocks prep an NCAA title run.

Neighbors became alarmed when MyKayla Skinner climbed the lamp pole in front of her home in suburban Phoenix. They summoned her mother, who calmly asked the 5-year-old girl to come down from her perch above the street.

Is there any doubt that she stuck the landing?

Gymnastics experts call it "air sense," describing the body control and self-awareness necessary to twist, turn and land properly in an acrobatic sport. Even as a child, modeling an older sister, Skinner loved to climb, jump and fly, demonstrating the traits that would make her a University of Utah star. Having made a spectacular entry into college gymnastics, the freshman will lead the Utes into the NCAA championships that begin Friday in St. Louis.

Ranked No. 2, Skinner may become Utah's first NCAA all-around champion since Theresa Kulikowski in 1999. Such a four-event achievement would complete one of the best years in school history, after a summer when Skinner barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team (that's a long story) and a season when she was overlooked in the coaches' voting for the Pac-12 Conference's Gymnast of the Year award (a longer story).

'This is my journey' • She's not an ordinary freshman, at age 20. Skinner soon may become known as Utah's all-time top performer, long before her senior year. "My biggest fear for MyKayla is she will get too bored," said Pac-12 Networks analyst Samantha Peszek. "I'm curious to see how she can keep college gymnastics exciting for herself and stay motivated. I can't imagine what she's going to accomplish in the next three years."

Having come from elite-level international gymnastics, in which fans scrutinize everything from her social media accounts to her celebration after a successful vault, Skinner is used to blocking out detractors and performing well. "I've just got to work on myself and do what I want," she said in her usual breathless style of speaking, "because this is my journey, not yours, and I'm going to do what I want to do and excel and be part of this team and just enjoy myself for once."

Ute junior Tiffani Lewis, who was the Pac-12's reigning floor-exercise champion before Skinner arrived on campus, described her teammate's approach: "I'm just going to go out and do the best that I can do and make everybody watch me."

Lewis added, "She's having a lot more fun with it, rather than putting so much pressure on herself."

It makes sense, how a gymnast who in essence became the sixth member of the "Final Five," the American team that dominated the 2016 Olympic meet in Rio de Janeiro, would thrive in college. But that doesn't always happen.

Some athletes "are so beat up by the time they get there, they can't do all-around [competition] anymore," said Lisa Spini, Skinner's coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Arizona.

In addition to the regimen of weekly meets in college, the scoring method flusters some international gymnasts. They're accustomed to a system that rewards high difficulty, unlike the 10-point scoring limit in college that emphasizes execution.

College gymnastics is "almost a different sport," said Peszek, a 2008 Olympian who competed for UCLA.

Some combination of Spini's preparation and the work of Ute co-coaches Megan Marsden and Tom Farden has worked for Skinner. "We were able to pick and choose some of her best skills that were the cleanest," Marsden said.

The collegiate environment, in contrast to cutthroat international competition, is refreshing to Skinner.

"She's loving it," said her mother, Kym. "She's able to go out there and really have fun. … We've just seen big changes in her."

Growing by leaps and bounds • Skinner's life story begins at birth, with doctors having to revive the child upon delivery. "She just came in as a fighter," her mother likes to say, while also labeling her "a very, very, very sweet girl."

» Next page... 2 3 Single page



MyKayla Skinner timeline

1996 » Born Dec. 9 to Kym and Cris Skinner as the youngest of four children.

2002 » Family moves to Draper for a brief stint, competes for the Olympus School of Gymnastics.

2007 » Joins Desert Lights Gymnastics in suburban Phoenix under coach Lisa Spini.

2011-12 » Member of U.S. Junior National Team.

2014 » Wins all-around, vault and team titles in the Pan American Championships; signs with the University of Utah.

2015 » Finishes second on vault and seventh in all-around in the Secret U.S. Classic; defers college enrollment to pursue 2016 Olympics.

2016 » Places fourth in the all-around in the U.S. Olympic Trials, becomes the No. 1 alternate to the five-woman team that wins the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro; enrolls at Utah in October.

2017 » Becomes the NCAA’s co-No. 1-ranked vault performer and No. 2 all-arounder, going into the national meet.

Winning it all

Utah’s all-around national champions:

Sue Stednitz, 1982

Megan McCunniff, 1983, ‘84

Missy Marlowe, 1992

Theresa Kulikowski, 1999

Where she ranks

Ute gymnast MyKayla Skinner shares the school record for all-around victories in a season with 11 and ranks third with 40 event titles. As a senior in 2008, Ashley Postell had 11 all-around wins and 47 event titles, while competing in two more regular-season meets than Skinner.

NCAA Gymnastics Championships

Friday-Saturday, St. Louis, Mo.

Friday semifinals

Afternoon Session, 11 a.m. MDT

(Starting event listed next to team)

» No. 1 Oklahoma (bye before floor)

» No. 4 Utah (vault)

» No. 6 UCLA (bye before bars)

» No. 7 Denver (beam)

» No. 11 Washington (bars)

» No. 12 Oregon State (floor)

Live stream » ESPN3

Evening Session, 6 p.m. MDT

» No. 2 LSU (bye before floor)

» No. 3 Florida (vault)

» No. 5 Michigan (bye before bars)

» No. 8 Alabama (floor)

» No. 9 Georgia (beam)

» No. 10 Nebraska (bars)


Saturday championships

Super Six Team Finals, 7 p.m.

Live Stream » ESPN3