Gymnast MyKayla Skinner embarks on a long road back to Olympics

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah's MyKayla Skinner scored a 9.975 on the vault as No. 3 University of Utah gymnastics team meets BYU gymnastics at the Marriott Center, Jan. 10, 2019. Skinner took a year off to prepare to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. That year has turned into two with the postponement of the Summer Games until 2021 because of the coronavirus.

MyKayla Skinner could see her destination on the horizon. The U.S. Olympic Gymnastic Trials loomed just ahead. And if she squinted, she could make out the skyscrapers of Tokyo, the site of the 2020 Summer Games. She giddily texted friend and fellow national team veteran Simone Biles in late March that in just a few months they could be there, taking their final bows on the elite stage.

Then a giant wave of distress generated by the deadly and contagious coronavirus completely knocked Skinner off course. On March 24, the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese Organizing Committee announced they would be postponing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics until July 2021.

Skinner, 23, would have to invest yet another year into the gymnastic career she started nearly two decades ago. The post-gymnastics life she was looking forward to starting will have to be put on a shelf.

“Me and Simone were like, ‘We’re almost done! We’ll never have to go to a camp ever again. We’re almost there,’” Skinner, who has competed for the University of Utah since 2017, recalled. “And all this stuff starts happening, and me and Simone are sitting there texting each other like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ You know?

“It’s like the gymnastics gods are calling my name saying, ‘You can’t be done with gym.’ Like, I guess there’s always a reason I’m still doing it, you know?”

So for one more year — and probably not much longer — Skinner will chase her Olympic dream.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune file) MyKayla Skinner competes on the beam for the Utah, in Gymnastics action at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Saturday, March 2, 2019. She will not return for the 2021 season but said she would like to win a national collegiate championship.

Skinner already put her college career and her education on hold, deferring her senior year at Utah with the Red Rocks to train at the elite level. The same could be said for her life, though she did marry her longtime boyfriend, Jonas Harmer, in November.

The thought of keeping her life on pause an extra 12 months is exhausting, she said. And she’s not the only one who sees it that way.

“We were on this track, you know: Do this and do it hard. Then she was going to go on about her life and I was gonna, you know, do things different, too,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s longtime coach and the owner of Desert Lights Gymnastics in Arizona. “Because it’s certainly different to work with an athlete that is training for the Olympics than it is, you know, just your regular athlete. It’s a lot more one-on-one. I mean, it’s way more hours for me as well.”

Together, though, they came up with a plan to weather the lull. To keep Skinner from getting bored and because “she’s a trickster,” Spini spiced up her athlete’s training with more difficult maneuvers. At the same time, they are working hard to perfect the skills already in Skinner’s repertoire in an effort to cut down points deductions she’d been handed in the past.

Those improvements could eventually boost Skinner’s odds of being selected for the Olympic team at next year’s trials, which are scheduled for June 24-27 in St. Louis, Missouri. At the moment, though, she said they’re making her feel even less prepared than she felt in March when she had just a couple months left to fine tune.

“I know I still have like a year out from the Olympics, but then I feel like I’m behind because I’m trying to work so many different things and I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “I don’t know, it just gets stressful sometimes.”

Skinner also has to be concerned about preserving her health. Though one key to her longevity in gymnastics has been her remarkable ability to remain healthy, she knows there is a limit to what her body can do. The more difficult the maneuvers, the greater toll they take on muscles and ligaments, and Skinner started stretching hers to the max before many of the other U.S. national team members were even born. Sure, the oldest Olympic gymnast in history was 40, but the average age is 18. It was closer to 16 before a rule change in the 1990s.

Then there’s the ever-present threat of contracting the coronavirus. It’s especially real to Skinner. She wisely chose to leave her parents’ Arizona house shortly after her father returned from a business trip to New York last spring. Days later, both her mother and father came down with severe cases. They have since recovered.

A third concern, though less so since her marriage to Harmer, who she said has a lucrative marketing job, is funding her dream for another year. As a member of the national team, Skinner receives a stipend through USA Gymnastics to pay for most of her sport-related expenses, like tape for wrapping her wrists and ankles and twice-a-week physical therapist appointments. She said national team members have been assured they will continue to receive stipends through next year’s Olympic Trials.

Yet scandals, especially the sex abuse scandal involving team doctor Larry Nassar, have rocked the organization. And with sponsors harder to come by, so is money for athletes and staff. To help make up for that deficit, plus the loss of revenue from membership fees and events, USA Gymnastics has joined the National Governing Bodies of several other sports in participating in the Giving Games, a fundraising drive that runs the 17 days of the original Tokyo 2020 schedule.

Though the Giving Games end Sunday, those wanting to help can donate at any time to any of the governing bodies, all of which are nonprofits.

Adam Andrasko, the CEO of USA Artistic Swimming, said his organization’s $1.75 million budget will likely take a $1 million hit this year. Still, as seems to be the case with USA Gymnastics, his priority is to support the athletes, he said, with any of the crumbs going to pay staff and operating expenses.

“We have a responsibility because so many of those girls and women have dedicated so much of their lives to the sport,” Andrasko said, “and removing their funding would be cruel, in my opinion.”

That’s all to say, Skinner sees the months before the first scheduled national team training camp in January as a long slog. But if she needs motivation to get through it, she need look no further back than four years ago at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Skinner finished fourth in the all-around at the Olympic trials but wasn’t selected for the five-member Team USA. Instead, she was taken as an alternate, a role she said felt like “punishment.” She and the other alternates had to train just as hard as the core team in case one of those athletes came up injured, but they did so in separate facilities and without many of the perks. When the competitions were held, they watched from the stands.

She said recalling the moment reignites her “burning desire” to make the Olympic team.

Skinner knows a lot can happen between now and next July. For all anyone knows, the virus may still be running rampant and the Tokyo Olympics may be canceled altogether. If that happens, the next time she’d have a chance at making the team she’d be 28. By then, she hopes to have put her competition days behind her.

So with really just one more shot at her dream, she has again set her compass for Tokyo. Maybe she’ll set foot in the Ariake Gymnastics Centre next summer as a full-fledged member of Team USA. Maybe she’ll again be taken off course. Either way, she sees it as the last leg of her elite gymnastics career, and she’s up for the voyage.

“We kind of talked about it and I said, you know, there isn’t any way this won’t be good for you,” Spini said. “Either way, it works out.”

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