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For Olympic glory, MyKayla Skinner must first fend off her USA Gymnastics teammates

Only two Americans can advance in each event out of Saturday’s qualification round in Tokyo

(Ashley Landis | AP) Mykayla Skinner of the United States trains on uneven bars for artistic gymnastics at Ariake Gymnastics Centre venue ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

MyKayla Skinner is one of the best gymnasts in the world. As a vaulter, she’s currently well within the top five, and she’s right up there with her floor routine as well.

To even sniff the opportunity to win an Olympic medal over the next two weeks in Tokyo, though, the former University of Utah athlete will need to have one of the best performances of her life during Saturday’s qualification round at the Ariake Gymnastics Center.

And her biggest competition will be her own teammates.

“Every country can only have two athletes in the final,” explained Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Arizona. “So whereas you could rightfully be the bronze medalist, you were not even in the final.”

If Skinner was competing in the team competition for USA Gymnastics, the favorite to win a gold medal, her preliminary placing wouldn’t matter quite as much. But Skinner was chosen to compete as an individual. So, if she doesn’t finish among the top two Americans in the overall or on any of the four apparatus — vault, uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam — in Saturday’s qualifier, she won’t even advance to a final.

And really, it’s just one spot up for grabs. Simone Biles — aka the Greatest Of All Time — is practically a shoo-in to advance in every individual event.

(Chang W. Lee | The New York Times) Simone Biles competes the floor exercise at the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics trials on Sunday, June 27, 2021, in St. Louis.

To complicate matters even more, Jade Carey, who will also compete as an individual for Team USA, has the same event strengths as Skinner.

“If she can get into vault and not get super-countried out, I feel like she’ll be the silver medalist on vault,” Spini said of Skinner. “But she can also get super-countried out and not be in the final.

“I mean, the Olympics isn’t the best athletes, necessarily. It’s what it is: There’s limits on how many can go into the final and contend for medals per country.”

Skinner finished second in the vault, seventh on uneven bars and balance beam, and eighth on the floor at the Olympic Trials late last month. That placed her fifth in the all-around behind the athletes selected to represent the United States in the team competition: Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum. (McCallum, 18, has committed to compete for the Red Rocks this year, but won’t compete alongside Skinner, who recently announced her retirement from the Utah team.)

Skinner battled through numerous challenges, both physical and emotional, just to get onto the Tokyo Olympics team.

After thrice being named an alternate — for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil and the 2015 and 2019 world championships — despite landing among the top performers in qualifiers, she decided to take a year away from Utah to train for the 2020 Games. Then the coronavirus swept through the world and everything was put on hold.

Skinner hoped to use the extra year to add difficulty to her routine, but that plan was sidetracked when she injured her Achilles in December. Then in January, she contracted COVID-19. Just as she was getting back into the gym, she became hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia. She was still dealing with reduced lung capacity and ankle issues when she competed at the Olympic Trials, she said. In fact, she packed an entire large suitcase with rolls of tape, wrap and chalk just for her feet.

(Jeff Roberson | AP) MyKayla Skinner competes on the beam during the women's U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials Sunday, June 27, 2021, in St. Louis.

After getting a chance to test out the training and competition venues in Tokyo, though, Skinner said in a YouTube video that they meet her approval. Especially the springy nature of the floor exercise mat.

“My tumbling has been frickin’ bomb,” she said. “My double-double layouts are better than ever because I’m finally on a floor that gives me some air, especially since my ankles have just been so sore.”

The same video showed Skinner palling around with the other women on the team as they made a short stop at the Athletes Village and traveled on a bus to their hotel. She had been rooming with Biles, but each athlete was moved to her own room after alternate Kara Eaker, another Red Rocks commit, tested positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated.

It’s apparent Skinner doesn’t see her teammates as adversaries. At least not until Saturday night.

“I’m just trying to focus on myself,” she said. “I could still be part of the team because they still could put me in, so I’m trying to be prepared for that. But really I’m just doing what I need to do and hopefully I get into some event finals, which would be really awesome.

She added, “If that isn’t in my future to take home a medal, which I’m sure it will be, it’s cool to be able to say I’m an Olympian.

“It’s the Olympics, baby,” she said with a grin. “I made it.”

WOMEN’S GYMNASTICS QUALIFICATIONS

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. MDT

Watch: NBC or Peacock or via NBCOlympics.com or the NBC Sports app

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