For Utah’s Olympic athletes, the pandemic’s waiting game may have been the hardest of them all

Tokyo Games’ postponement tested MyKayla Skinner’s and Jake Gibb’s drive, but other athletes uncovered new interests during the time off.

(AJ Mast | AP) MyKayla Skinner performs a vault during the U.S. Classic gymnastics event in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 22, 2021.

MyKayla Skinner can do the Cheng — one of the most challenging vaults in modern gymnastics due to its blind entry and 540-degree twist — on a bum foot under the most stressful of environments with barely a flinch and a big smile. But surviving the extra year between when the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were originally scheduled and this week, when they will officially begin, nearly broke her.

“There’s been so many times that I wanted to quit. I wanted to give up. I just don’t want to do it anymore,” the typically bouncy former University of Utah Red Rock said glumly from her couch in a video diary she “pulled herself together” to post on her YouTube channel in January. “This whole extra year has just turned into … a piece of crap, to be honest.”

Last March, the International Olympics Committee and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the unprecedented decision to push back the 2020 Games one year in the hope that it could wait out the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. In doing so, it created another unique scenario: For the first time in history, athletes had an extra year to prepare themselves to qualify or compete.

For some, the extension was a bonus period, an extended deadline to fit in all the extra training and preparation they might have otherwise had to skip. For many others, who may not have had access to gyms or training plans, those 12 months became a physical wasteland and a psychological Rorschach test that may have been harder to get through than any international opponent.

Skinner and others who punched their ticket to Tokyo at least have something to show for it. That doesn’t mean, however, that they look back over the “COVID year” with rose-colored glasses.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do with my life,’” recalled Lexi Lagan, a University of Utah graduate and 2020 Olympian in shooting, whose coach advised her to take time away from her guns. “I tried a couple new things, but for a month I did nothing. I was on the Olympic team, preparing for the Olympics and doing nothing.”

And nothing, for an Olympian, is often the hardest thing to do.

From peak performance to pajamas

Lagan, Team USA’s top female qualifier in the 10-meter air pistol and the 25-meter sport pistol, said she flew back from an international competition in which she qualified for Tokyo just before the United States declared a state of emergency and issued travel bans. She and her teammates continued to train vigorously at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she now lives, with the expectation the Games would be held. When they were paused, Lagan felt like her life was, too.

“It was hard to believe that it happened. So that was kind of strange for me,” the 28-year-old said. “The next part of that was the realization that I was in a very high, peak-performance mode and now I had nothing to train for. It was kind of like, ‘I’m really, really ready. … I guess I’m going to go to bed?’ ”

(Lexi Lagan) Lexi Lagan, a University of Utah graduate, competes for Team USA in the 2018 World Shooting Championships. Lagan will compete in the 10-meter air pistol, the 25-meter sport pistol and a mixed team event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Lagan said one benefit of the time off was that she found Twitch, the livestream gaming platform. She now turns to it as a way to unwind.

Swimmer Rhyan White of Herriman also felt lost at sea when the postponement occurred.

Unlike Lagan, White had not yet qualified for the Olympics, where she’ll swim the 100- and 200-meter backstroke for Team USA and is also likely to be named to a relay. With pools closed pretty much nationwide, however, she also had no place to train.

“I went home for a little while, but it was pretty hard to stay motivated, I’ll be honest,” she said. “My dad asked me to get a job because I wasn’t super serious with the swimming. So that was weird.”

But White, 21, said she thinks the break actually worked out in her favor. She worked as a runner for a law firm in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she attends school, and found the profession appealing. She also appreciated the bonus time with her family. And since she only had to spend a few months out of the pool, she said it was a good reset before she started training hard again for the trials, where she swam the third-fastest 200-meter time in the world this year.

But Lagan and White are in their prime. If the Tokyo Olympics had been canceled, they still could have aimed for Paris in 2024. That wasn’t the case for Jake Gibb and Skinner, two athletes with ties to Utah who were already stretching their elite careers to the limit even before the Games were pushed back.

Retirement can wait

At 45, Gibb will be the oldest beach volleyball player in Olympic history when he steps on the sand at Shiokaze Park along Tokyo Bay. The Bountiful native and four-time Olympian had treated the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro as his farewell Olympic tour, but his plans changed after a few seasons of partnering with Taylor Crabb. The pair was having a stellar 2019 season, with Olympic qualification squarely in their sights, when COVID caused the volleyball world to stop.

One more year meant another year older for Gibb, who was already feeling his age.

“I’m 45. I have aches and pains that a 26-year-old doesn’t have,” he said. “I’m pushing through, like ‘I’ve got four months left!’ And then it’s like, ‘I’ve got a year and four months left.’

“But there are positives, too,” he said. “I get to keep playing.”

(Petr David Josek | AP) Jake Gibb dives for a ball during the quarterfinal men's beach volleyball match against Latvia at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, in London.

For Skinner, the positives were harder to see, especially as she ran into one roadblock after another.

Skinner had a season of eligibility remaining when she left the Red Rocks in 2019 to commit to pursuing a spot on the 2020 Olympic gymnastics team. She then convinced Lisa Spini, the owner of Desert Lights Gymnastics in Arizona who had been preparing to cut back the hours she spends at the gym, to put her life on hold for a year to help her achieve that goal. So when the postponement was announced, they both cried.

“But we knew she’d come this far,” said Spini, who had shared Skinner’s heartbreak when she was named an alternate instead of a team member in 2016 after finishing fourth at the trials, “and she had to stay with it.”

After the tears, came hope. An extra year would give Skinner time to work on even more difficult maneuvers, which would raise her baseline scores and improve her chances of being selected to compete for Team USA if an Olympics actually was held the next year.

Then came injury and illness and frustration and dejection and a slow, meticulous recovery. Skinner, already old for a gymnast at 24, developed an Achilles injury in December. In January, she came down with COVID-19. Not long after that, she developed pneumonia, which landed her in the hospital for several days.

Skinner still wasn’t up to top health when the Olympic trials came around in late June, and she certainly hadn’t added any increased difficulty to her routine. What she did have was the Cheng vault and a fifth-place finish in the all-around, which was enough to convince the USA Gymnastics selection committee she should compete in Tokyo.

Immediately after the trials ended, national team coordinator Tom Forster sought out Spini to tell her he understood how tough the extra year had been on everyone.

“[I] just said, ‘Thanks so much for putting your life on hold to let MyKayla to pursue this dream of hers,’” Forster said. “She’s an amazing inspiration who also has just put in the work.”