Red Rocks' MyKayla Skinner is still using her Olympic snub as motivation

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah's MyKayla Skinner on the bars as No. 3 University of Utah gymnastics team meets BYU gymnastics at the Marriot Center, Jan. 10, 2019.

No matter how many 10.0s she earns, how many individual titles she takes or how many times she hits her routines without even a hint of a bobble, Utah gymnast MyKayla Skinner can’t do one thing — erase the disappointment of failing to be selected to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.

Her story is well known in gymnastics circles now: Skinner finished fourth at the U.S. Trials, so it would make sense she would be selected for the five-woman team. Instead, the committee passed over Skinner and selected two gymnasts who finished behind her, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian.

Skinner went to Rio de Janeiro as an alternate, but was nothing more than a glorified cheerleader for the U.S. in its gold medal run.

Don’t misunderstand, Skinner was happy the U.S. won, but she can’t help but feel there is an asterisk on her gymnastics career. That disappointment is one of the driving forces behind the junior’s gymnastics even today. It’s why she so often finishes her routines with a big fist pump, eggs on the crowd by flashing the “U” and uses the song “The Champion,” by Carrie Underwood.

About the only thing Skinner hasn’t done is point to where she is going to land, like a batter predicting where he is going to hit his home run. Some might interpret Skinner’s demeanor as cockiness in a sport known for its politeness and hugs, no matter how insincere those gestures are. For Skinner, make no mistake, her gestures are real, as is the pain of disappointment that remains. She loves college gymnastics she said, and it is one of the reasons she is so demonstrative.

“Why not have fun?” she said.

But every celebration, every performance is tinged with the desire to prove herself.

“It’s not like I sit around and think, ‘Why me,’ Skinner said. “Everyone goes through something that challenges them and my experience makes me want to do more and do better and just be more competitive.”

Call it a chip on her shoulder or an anchor of bitterness around her ankle, however you want to term it, Skinner’s motivation has served her well. She goes into Saturday’s meet at Arizona State as one of the most decorated gymnasts in Utah history, having won the NCAA floor title in 2017, vault title in 2018 and amassing 18 All-America honors.

She holds the school record for all-around wins (12 in 2017) and has never missed a routine, going 122 of 122. Happy with her performances, Skinner can’t shake the feeling that she has unfinished business and is considering making a push for a spot on the 2020 Olympic Team.

“My body is good and I think I can get out there and do the big skills again,” she said. “College has been a journey and as much fun as I am having, I do think about making a comeback and go back into training, but I know I’d have to leave a lot behind.”

Skinner would have to forgo her senior year to handle the training schedule required by Olympic hopefuls. The thought of missing her senior year makes Skinner hesitate some, but it is the reality of the demands of the higher levels of gymnastics. She has the blessing of the Utah coaches, although coach Megan Marsden worries for her gymnast.

“We recruited her under the premise we would support her in whatever she wants to do in international gymnastics,” Marsden said. “But there are a lot of questions too. I know her school work is important to her. …The biggest thing is I’d hate to see her go back into that arena unless she had a good chance. It’s extremely political and I don’t think she was treated fairly the last time so I worry about her and what that could do to her if it happens again.”

Skinner said she knows she needs to make a decision in the coming months, but believes she has a chance, particularly since the team format is changing. The team is being reduced from five members to four, but countries also have an opportunity to qualify up to two individual gymnasts who can be all-around or specialists through several competitions such as the World Cups, Challenge Cups and Continental Championships.

That she could qualify as an individual, rather than having to work all four events, makes Skinner’s chances more realistic.

“I’m trying not to think about it too much right now,” Skinner said. “But it would be really cool.”

For now Skinner is focused on the Utes’ season. So far she and the Utes are off to a fantastic start. The team has yet to fall under the 197 mark and Skinner is ranked third in the all-around (39.642), first on the vault (9.967) and fifth on the floor (9.933). Despite her high rankings, there remains a feeling Skinner is shorted in her scores. It’s almost like she is so perfect, she is judged on a different standard than “regular” gymnasts.

“You don’t always get the scores you want,” she said. “Sometimes I go back and look at routines thinking, ‘was it that bad,’ and it does hurt some inside. But it just pushes me to want to come back and show more improvement and fix it until they can’t take deductions away from me. I like looking at the routines to see what else I can do.”

Judges might deny her a perfect score, but what they can’t deny is her own satisfaction, so clear in her celebrations which truly are of joy, she said.

“I’m so pumped out there, I don’t think about the negatives,” she said.

The benefit for the Utes is Skinner’s demeanor extends to the team. She isn’t a self-absorbed prima donna; she wants to bring the whole team along with her in a bid for success. In other words, she is sharing that chip of discontent.

“We absolutely love it,” MaKenna Merrell-Giles said. “We feed off it like crazy. I’ve never had a teammate like her and it is easy to feed off her. She motivates us not only in practice but in meets.”

In many ways, Skinner shouldn’t have anything else to prove; her talents in college gymnastics are well known. But she keeps looking, keeps trying to find ways to make herself so good, there won’t be an excuse left to not give her a perfect score or, perhaps, name her to the Olympic Team.

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