Considered separately, MaKenna Merrell-Giles and MyKayla Skinner are great gymnasts.
Together, the two are the result of some sort of human chemistry experiment, combining to create huge results for the Utah Utes.
Would Merrell-Giles be the gymnast she is without Skinner? It’s doubtful. Would Skinner get the big scores she consistently earns without Merrell-Giles setting her up? Probably not.
One thing is certain though, their combination has been tremendously successful for the two gymnasts, as well as the Utes.
They will share the competition floor for the last time this week when the Utes compete in the NCAA Championships in Ft. Worth.
The Utes knew the quality of gymnasts they were getting when they recruited the two, but had no idea how they would come to push each other. They share the commonality of both being members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but really didn’t know each other except for a few brief run-ins at competitions during their club days.
Now, three years later, they are arguably one of the strongest duos in collegiate gymnastics and one of the most uncommon too. Plenty of teams have more than one superstar, but what makes this pair unique is that Merrell-Giles not only accepts, but thrives in the role of being the setup for Skinner.
She isn’t just satisfied to do so, but takes it as a personal challenge to box the judges into a corner. If she can earn a 9.95, then how can the judges give Skinner anything less when she goes out and nails a routine with even more difficulty?
“It’s only going to make our team better,” Merrell-Giles said of the arrangement. “It’s not like she gets in the gym and gets more attention, we both put in the same amount of work and I know how hard she works.”
Merrell-Giles’ attitude toward the setup is so matter of fact, it is unusual, Utah coach Megan Marsden said.
“MaKenna is the unsung hero and she relishes the position,” Utah coach Megan Marsden said. “It’s a cool story that she takes so much pride in doing her part. She is a humble soul.”
NCAA GYMNASTICS CHAMPIONSHIPS
Friday-Saturday at the Fort Worth Convention Center
All times Mountain
(National qualifying scores included)
Session 1 (ESPN2), 1 p.m. • No. 2 UCLA (396.085), No. 3 LSU (395.31), No. 5 Utah (394.785), No. 6 Michigan (394.595)
Session 2 (ESPNU) 5 p.m. • No. 1 Oklahoma (396.59), No. 4 Denver (394.92), No. 7 Georgia (395.365), No. 8 Oregon State (393.525)
Top two teams from each session advance to the finals, 5 p.m. ESPNU
The Utes learned just how valuable it is to have the two go back-to-back when they were experimenting with the beam lineups and put Merrell-Giles earlier in the lineup. The chemistry didn’t work nearly as well and now the two go together on every event, except bars, where Missy Reinstadtler competes between them since her routine has the potential to earn slightly more than Merrell-Giles’ does.
The pairing is so unique that Marsden struggled to think of another duo the Utes have had, finally settling into a comparison of Missy Marlowe and Shelly Schaerrer, who starred for the Utes from 1989-92.
But the Skinner-Merrell-Giles duo is still different, for the way Merrell-Giles has upped her game yet remains willing to be the star in the shadows.
“They are a dynamic duo,” Marsden said of Skinner and Merrell-Giles. “There is a connection between the two that helps both of them be successful.”
Marsden credits Merrell-Giles for being a good influence on Skinner when she arrived at Utah. Often it is difficult for elite gymnasts to make the switch to the team-oriented ideal of college gymnastics after competing for so long as an individual, but Skinner made that switch rather easily. Part of the ease in transition certainly is due to Skinner’s own personality, but Merrell-Giles was there as a guide.
“MaKenna was a great example for MyKayla when she arrived because she helped MyKayla understand the epitome of team gymnastics,” Marsden said. “There was an immediate connection with them and their relationship continued to grow onto the competitive floor. Sports can do that for people. They started as friends and ended up incredible teammates.”
Skinner remembers those first days and how Merrell-Giles helped her with everything, even to the point of showing her how to line up at practice.
“She definitely helped me a lot,” Skinner said. “We fed off each other, and she had the experience of being at Utah because I deferred a year and I had the experience of the Olympics so we grew a lot and pushed each other. We help each other so much in competition it has been fun and special.”
Now they joke that they are “Mick and cheese.”
“She is my sister,” Merrell-Giles said. “She is an easy person to get along with. She will come up to me before vault or floor and say, ‘Come on Kenna, let’s do it.’ We are like a 1-2 punch.”
Individually, their success can be measured in all the individual accolades that have come their way. Merrell-Giles is an eight-time All-American and the 2018 regional and Pac-12 vault champion. Skinner is a 22-time All-American, eight-time regional champion and seven-time Pac-12 champion.
But the team has obviously profited too with the Utes enjoying successful seasons during their time at Utah.
However, the postseason hasn’t been quite as kind to the Utes in the last three years. They won the 2017 Pac-12 title, but the national showings have been disappointing, finishing ninth in 2016 and fifth the last two years.
Is the chemistry between Skinner and Merrell-Giles enough to lead the Utes to a better finish this year?
Both are hopeful but neither is sure, noting that the Utes are in a tough session Friday and by seedings the Utes are underdogs to advance.
But both are going into it believing the Utes have a fighting chance too and accept the responsibility of setting the tone.
“It helps a lot that MaKenna is a senior and I am a junior now and we have some of the most experience on this team,” Skinner said. “We have accomplished a lot and hopefully that will help lead us to that win. That is the role we have.”