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MyKayla Skinner, Grace McCallum on opposite ends of Utes gymnastics spectrum

In Simone Biles’ Gold Over America tour, newcomer and outgoing veteran will perform together

(Jeff Roberson | AP) Members of the U.S. Women's Olympic Gymnastic Team, from left, Simone Biles, Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum plus individual members MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey are announced after the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials Sunday, June 27, 2021, in St. Louis.

The last University of Utah gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Maverik Center will, for a few hours next month, share the spotlight there with one of the Red Rocks athletes favored to record the next one.

MyKayla Skinner will be soaking up the adoration of Utah fans for the last time as a performer. Grace McCallum, meanwhile, will be experiencing their fervor for the first time.

They’re at opposite ends of their athletic careers, but Skinner and McCallum have similar reasons for joining Simone Biles’s Gold Over America Tour. The 35-stop national tour, which kicked off Tuesday and will hold its only Utah performance on Oct. 2, allows both to extend their Olympic experience — and exposure — a few extra months. It emphasizes mental health and the strength of women, topics dear to both athletes’ hearts. And, it’ll give them a dose of fan love and fun before they move into the next chapter in their lives.

“I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” McCallum, who will take only online classes for her first semester at Utah and do her studying on the road, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I didn’t really want to pass that up.”

The Tokyo Olympics were such a roller coaster that both McCallum and Skinner are eager to have a little more fun with the sport.

Olympians make the best of unusual circumstances

For McCallum, the drama started months ago, when she had a plate and seven pins put into her pinky after getting a “boxer’s fracture.” The finger later became infected and she pulled a pulley muscle as she tried to work around it. Internally, she had to deal with the pain of the death of her uncle. One of her biggest fans, he had contracted COVID-19.

(Gregory Bull | AP) Grace McCallum, of the United States, performs on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo.

She pushed through all that to finish fourth in the all-around at Olympic Trials, which a USA Gymnastics committee warranted was worthy of a spot on the four-person Olympic team. More adversity awaited the squad in Tokyo, however. As has been heavily documented, the usually unflappable Biles began to experience “the twisties,” a dangerous mental block in which an athlete loses their spacial awareness, during the Olympic team final. She couldn’t go on, she told her team after her opening vault went awry, but she believed they could win a medal without her.

McCallum had the unenviable task of proving Biles right. She was the first American up, with the uneven bars awaiting her.

“My heart was beating super fast. I was on the verge of tears because I just felt so much pressure,” McCallum recalled. “And I knew in the back of my head that my routine kind of set the mood for the rest of the meet and how we would do things. So I was like, ‘I have to make this routine so that we start the rest of this meet on a good note.’”

She got out without any major issues and, building upon that, the Americans went on to take silver.

Skinner, meanwhile, had her bags packed and was ready to board a flight home the next morning when her former roommate and fellow “grandma” on the team benched herself.

(Chang W. Lee | The New York Times) MyKayla Skinner of United States gets a hug from teammate Simone Biles after her performance on the beam during women's artistic gymnastic qualifications at Ariake Gymnastics Center in Tokyo on Sunday, July 25, 2021.

It had been an emotional Olympics for the 24-year-old. An alternate for two world championships and the 2016 Games, she had finally been selected to compete, just not in the team competition. After failing to place among the top two Americans in prelims, despite having the fourth-best vault overall, Skinner was facing the hard truth that she would be flying home without a medal.

That all changed when Biles, the top scorer on vault in prelims, bowed out. But Skinner said she was conflicted about taking her place.

“It was hard for me because that’s not how I wanted to go into the finals, with somebody getting hurt or somebody that couldn’t compete,” Skinner told The Tribune. “So my brain was kind of all over the place. But I just had to get there and get mentally and physically back into the game.”

She, too, walked away with silver.

Skinner, McCallum start anew

Both McCallum and Skinner said they’ve hardly had a moment to process their Olympic adventure.

McCallum spent two weeks in her home state of Minnesota upon returning from Tokyo before packing her bags for college. Skinner also began to pack for Utah, where she and her husband bought a home. They plan to live in Spanish Fork for at least two years while she finishes up her communications degree at Utah and he attends BYU and works.

Skinner said she occasionally experiences pangs of sadness that she’s not returning to the Red Rocks for her final year of eligibility. But her body, which has taken a considerable beating from years of gymnastics, and her mind are ready to move on.

“I love Utah gymnastics, and it would have been fun to compete one more year,” she said. “But I competed for three years there. I broke records. I went out there and did what I could do. So, I feel like there’s really not much left for me to do there.”

Instead, she plans to be in the stands, cheering McCallum and the rest of the Utah squad to success. She’s excited to see what this latest iteration of the Red Rocks — which also includes Amelie Morgan, who this summer helped Great Britain take its first medal in the Olympic team competition (bronze) since 1928, and Kara Eaker, an alternate for Team USA — can do.

And she wants to see what competing in college can do for them. For her, she said, it was just what she needed after years of competition, and frustration, at the elite level.

“College really helped me to regain the love for the sport. I think that was the biggest thing for me,” Skinner said. “Just because after 2016 and just being burnt out and going through everything I went through, I just felt like I hated gymnastics, even though it was like a love-hate relationship, obviously. ... So I’m really glad that I gave myself the chance to go to college to try it.”

McCallum isn’t hating gymnastics, but she isn’t sure yet whether she’s committed to the sport enough to chase a spot on the team for Paris 2024. Admittedly following Skinner’s blueprint, she expects to clean up some technical aspects of her performance this season with the Red Rocks. Then next year she’ll reevaluate her desire to return to the elite level. And if she has questions, she knows just who to ask.

“I know I always have her to reach out to,” she said of Skinner, “and she’ll help me.”

First, though, McCallum is focused on staying healthy on tour. After that, she plans to zone in on helping the Red Rocks defend their Pac-12 title. Last year, Utah won it for the first time since 2017, when Skinner was a freshman.

Two years later, Skinner received a perfect 10 for her floor routine in the 2019 Pac-12 championships. She said it’s still one of her favorite memories from competing with the Red Rocks.

The cheers of the crowd are what stuck with her, she said. With any luck, she’ll get to hear them again next month.

It’ll be McCallum’s first time performing in front of a Utah crowd. For Skinner, it’s likely the last.

“I’m excited that I get to show people a little bit more McKayla before it’s officially over,” Skinner said.

“I really hope,” she added, “that they’ll remember me forever.”

Simone Biles’ Gold Over America Tour

When: Oct. 2, 7 p.m.

Where: The Maverik Center, West Valley City

Athletes: Simone Biles, MyKayla Skinner, Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey, Laurie Hernandez, Katelyn Ohashi, Morgan Hurd, Shilese Jones, Chellsie Memmel, Melanie De Jesus dos Santos and Peng-Peng Lee.

Tickets: https://www.goldoveramericatour.com/goat/tickets.html

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