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USA gymnast MyKayla Skinner vaults her way to a silver medal

The former Ute star took a winding path to glory at the Tokyo Olympics

(Ashley Landis | AP) MyKayla Skinner of the United States, performs on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo.

After many years of roadblocks and frustrations, MyKayla Skinner finally has an elusive Olympic medal in her hands.

The former Utah gymnast, who followed one of the most unique paths to the Tokyo Olympic Games, earned the silver medal in the individual vault competition Sunday with a 14.916 vault average.

Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade won the gold with a 15.083 and Korea’s Yeo Seo-jeong took the bronze with a 14.733. American Jade Carey, another favorite for a medal, finished last out of the eight competitors when she struggled with her first vault.

Skinner, who is retiring from competition following the Olympics, ends her career in an almost unimaginable way after a somewhat tumultuous history with USA Gymnastics.

(Natacha Pisarenko | AP) MyKayla Skinner of the United States, poses after winning the silver medal for the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo.

She was passed over for the 2012 Olympic trials despite finishing 15th at the national championships then failed to make the 2016 Olympic team when she was passed over again in a controversial team selection after she finished fourth at the Olympic trials.

The disappointment of attending the 2016 Games as an alternate instead of a team member served as the catalyst for another attempt in 2020.

After excelling with the Utah team, winning the 2017 NCAA floor championship and 2018 vault title, Skinner left school after her junior year to train for the Tokyo Olympics.

“She is the picture of perseverance,” Utah gymnastics coach Tom Farden said. “She had a magnificent college career but she wanted more and she never stopped.”

Rarely do gymnasts leave the elite level, go to college then return for a successful elite career, but Skinner did just that. Following her silver medal performance Sunday, Skinner gave her experience at Utah credit for reigniting her passion for the sport. She and incoming Utah gymnast Grace McCallum, who was a member of the silver-medal winning team, were pictured on Instagram earlier in the week flashing the “U.”

“College helped me regain that love for the sport,” Skinner said. “That’s what kind of made me push for this comeback.”

There were questions whether Skinner could remain at a high level when the Olympics were delayed a year due to the pandemic. Not only did she do so, the 24-year-old also overcame Achilles tendinitis and a case of COVID that briefly hospitalized her and hampered her training for more than a month. If her training had gone smoother, who knows what she could have done in Tokyo.

“Unfortunately the battle with the Achilles injury and COVID definitely took a lot of the wind out of her sails,” said her coach, Lisa Spini. “Instead of coming into trials and the Olympics with all the new skills we had been working, we just had to try to get back to where we were and hope for the best.”

Her best was good enough to make her an Olympian.

Skinner was selected to the Olympics as an individual after placing fifth at the Olympic Trials. It looked like her career ended with the Olympic preliminaries where she finished 11th in the all-around and fourth in the vault competition. Even though those placings were high enough to make the finals by the numerical cutoffs, Skinner wasn’t eligible because of an international gymnastics federation rule that limits each country to two participants in the individual finals.

She moved into the vault finals when Simone Biles withdrew, finally giving her a shot at a medal.

(Gregory Bull | AP) Simone Biles of the United States, center, celebrates after teammate MyKayla Skinner won the silver medal in the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo.

She made the most of her chance, leading off the competition with the Cheng vault. She scored a 15.033 with deductions being taken for a small hop and knee bend. She performed the Amanar second, scoring a 14.8 with deductions for a hop to the side as she landed.

Skinner’s 14.916 finished with 14.916 average, slightly better than the 14.866 she had in qualifying.

Andrade performed the same vaults and stepped out on her first vault, the Cheng, but was clean otherwise and scored 15.166. She hopped out on the Amanar scoring 15.000 for a 15.083 average.

Even though the gymnasts wore masks during the medal ceremony, it was easy to see Skinner was thrilled with her finish as her eyes teared up and she showed off the medal.

“I was so proud of her persistence and mental strength,” Spini said. “Stepping in for her friend Simone was a huge honor. It’s hard to go first and have to sit and wait. Very pleased about this as a finish to her elite career.”

(Jeff Roberson | AP) MyKayla Skinner, of the United States, competes in the women's artistic gymnastics vault final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo.

Skinner has decided not to use her last year of eligibility with Utah, wanting to focus on some pro opportunities instead and complete her degree in broadcast journalism. She is excited to see the growing trend of college athletes competing in the Olympics and vice versa.

Sunisa Lee, who won the gold medal in the all-around, plans to compete for Auburn.

Skinner believes recent NCAA rule changes that will allow athletes to earn money off their name, image and likeness (NIL) will be a positive change.

“It’s really cool to see the Olympic athletes be able to go and get their education now that the rules have changed to still have opportunities and not give it all away,” she said. “I wish it could have been me four years ago. I’m ready to go sit in the stands and support them and see how it turns out.”

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