The emotion of the moment started to catch up to MyKayla Skinner as she stepped onto the vault runway during last Sunday’s final day of the USA Gymnastics Olympic Trials.
“Right when I got to vault, I was already crying,” she recalled in a video she posted Wednesday on YouTube, “and I was like, ‘I haven’t even vaulted yet!’”
The legacy of her two-decade-long gymnastic career hinged on how accurately and dynamically she bounded off the springboard, touched her hands to the vaulting table and spun and twisted to the other side. If she didn’t land her final maneuver of the night, her elite gymnastics career would be over. But even if she nailed it, Skinner knew her future wasn’t in her hands.
Twice the former University of Utah gymnast had finished fourth in the all-around at a qualifier for a bigger international meet — once for the 2016 Olympics, for which five athletes were chosen, and again for the 2019 World Championships, which was a team of six. Twice a USA Gymnastics selection committee chose to leave her off the main team and peg her as an alternate. At these Olympic trials, she finished fifth overall while trying to make a four-person team. Understandably, it was hard to keep the faith.
Ultimately, though, Skinner got her wish of officially being named an Olympian. She wasn’t selected to the main team — that went to the top four all-around finishers, which included winner Simone Biles and future Red Rocks gymnast Grace McCallum — but she was named an individual competitor. And though she’s disappointed not to be on the four-person team, Skinner said the selection process felt fair.
“It kind of was definitely a little bit of a guessing game,” Skinner told the media Monday. “But, I mean, they should do it that way. It should be fair — top four.”
Still, when the names of the four women who will represent Team USA in the team competition — Biles, McCallum, Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles — were called, Skinner was certain she’d be watching from the stands again.
At the Olympics, alternates travel to the host city, but they train and live away from the core team. They watch their sport from the stands and don’t receive a medal unless called upon to compete. In addition, most record books do not consider alternates official Olympians.
“After they called that fourth name, being in the back room, I was kind of like, ‘Oh, my gosh, am I going to be the alternate again?’ Like, I was super stressed,” Skinner, 24, said. “And then they called me for the individual spot. I was actually super shocked. I didn’t know that they would want to use me for the individual spot. So, it was really cool.”
As an individual, Skinner will not participate in the team or all-around competitions most people associate with gymnastics in the Olympics. The individual competition is held separately but will give her the opportunity to medal on each of the apparatus: uneven bars, balance beam, floor exercise, and vault.
Ghosts of previous qualifiers aside, the main reason Skinner didn’t expect the committee to select her as an individual competitor is because her strengths — floor and vault — mirror those of Jade Carey. Carey secured her spot on Team USA at the Olympics this spring via her performance in the Apparatus World Cup from 2018-2020.
Yet Tom Forster, a USA Gymnastics high performance team coordinator, indicated Monday that event strengths weren’t given much consideration. He said the committee tried to avoid the political quagmire and favoritism that has plagued the organization in recent years and make the selection process as transparent as possible. He said the main goal was maintaining the integrity of the sport.
That’s also why McCallum, who placed fourth in the all-around, was selected for a team spot ahead of Skinner even though Forster said Skinner would, mathematically, give Team USA a slightly better chance of winning gold.
“We’re so, so fortunate that our athletes are so strong that I don’t think it’s going to come down to tenths of a point in Tokyo,” Forster said. “It doesn’t appear to be [that thin of a margin] based on 2018 world championships and 2019 world championships. So as a committee, we just didn’t feel it was worth changing the integrity of the process simply for a couple of tenths.”
Her selection validated Skinner’s 2019 decision to step away from the Red Rocks and focus on making the Olympics. She has said she would like to return to Utah this year for her senior season.
Skinner was wrong about one thing, though: not having the future in her hands after that final event at Trials. By keeping her composure and checking her emotions during the vault, she turned in the second-highest combined score of the night behind Biles. The committee noticed.
“When it comes down to it, MyKayla also has world-class start values and execution on vault and she hit,” Forster said. “So that’s how we decided.”
After the vault, Skinner let the tears flow. Cameras even caught her saying it was her “last meet.” Yet hours after she found out her actual last meet would be in Tokyo, while recording part of her YouTube video in her hotel room in St. Louis in the wee hours of the morning, the emotions of the moment still moved her.
“I’m super happy for myself. This is seriously so cool,” she said, her eyes welling up. “I wouldn’t take anything for granted. This has just been so, so unreal. It doesn’t feel like I made the Olympic team.”
The USA Gymnastics team, for which incoming Red Rocks freshman Kara Eaker is an alternate, will begin Olympic competition July 25, just two days after the opening ceremony. Men’s and women’s individual competitions will be held Aug. 1-3.