By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics

When Mykayla Skinner made the decision to return to elite gymnastics she had one goal in mind: compete at the Olympic Games. It’s the only thing remaining on her bucket list.

A quick scan through Skinner’s decade-long resume will show just how much she has accomplished in the sport. She competed at the World Championships in 2014—helping Team USA win gold and bringing home a bronze for herself on vault. Throughout the years she has won numerous medals on vault and floor at the U.S. Championships, won the All-Around gold at the 2016 Glasgow World Cup, and became a NCAA Champion on vault and floor in her time as a collegiate gymnast for the University of Utah. 

However, through all the medals and success, Skinner knows what it’s like to be an alternate. She has served as an alternate for the 2015 and 2019 World Championships teams as well as for the 2016 Olympic team. It’s a feeling she doesn’t want to experience again as she makes a push for Tokyo. 

“It’s hard and it does get frustrating, but it has made me stronger and pushes me harder not to be in that position again,” Skinner said. “Anytime you’re in that position it’s going to motivate you more.”

When the calendar flipped to 2020 and the nation’s best gymnasts began ramping up their training, life took an unexpected turn. The Tokyo Olympics was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and seemingly everyone’s game plan for the rest of the year had been abruptly derailed. 

If she wanted to pursue her biggest dream, Skinner knew she had to commit to another year of intense training; she could only hope she would stay healthy and that everything would work out in the end. Meanwhile, her original plan of moving to Utah with her husband Jonas and finishing her degree would have to be put on hold. 

“It was so hard the first couple of weeks,” Skinner said. “I was so angry. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ and it made training so much harder. But then once I had more time think about it, I was like, ‘It’s only one more year. I can do it.’ I’ve come this far so I can’t give up now… I always say the gymnastics gods are telling me they don’t want me to be done with gymnastics. They just somehow keep having me go.”

For many gymnasts, the biggest setback resulting from the pandemic was gyms being closed all around the country for months—forcing gymnasts to find creative ways to condition and work out at home. For Skinner, the story looks a bit different. 

With COVID cases low in Arizona at the time, she was approved to continue training as long there was no more than 10 people in the gym at a time. Skinner said the hope was to take full advantage of the extra year and work new upgrades. A triple double on floor and a Ray to Bhardwaj combination on bars were two big upgrades she was hoping to add to her repertoire in 2021, but her plans got interrupted. 

Skinner has been dealing with a bone spur in her heel that rubs against her Achilles and has caused her pain, particularly on floor. Surgery is needed, but with the clock ticking away, Skinner said that was not an option if she wants to be ready for Tokyo. Although her pain is lingering, she ultimately feels strong enough to push through. To help alleviate the pain, she received an RPR injection and did a few months of shock wave therapy to keep the inflammation down and strengthen her foot. When it comes to achieving a lifelong dream, few things will get in Skinner’s way. 

But the struggles for Skinner don’t stop there. Another obstacle has been bouncing back from contracting COVID-19, which turned into pneumonia and required hospitalization in January 2021. In total, Skinner missed about a month of gym trying to recover.

“After having two weeks off, I was like, ‘Ok whatever.’ But after getting pneumonia and being out even more, I was like, ‘Am I even going to be ready?’ I didn’t know how my body was going to react or if my endurance would go back to normal.” 

Skinner said she has finally started to feel like her normal self again, although she admits there are still days when she struggles.  

“We’re obviously dying right now because we’re putting full routines together and going 100% and sometimes it’s like, ‘Is it hard because I’m doing full routines? Or is it because I just can’t breathe that well?’ Sometimes I still feel tired after everything.”

At times there has been a lot of frustration from Skinner. Yet she also knows she is not the only one who has had to overcome obstacles in the past year. 

“It’s kind of sad because I’ve spent so much time working these upgrades and now, I won’t get to do them,” Skinner said. “Everything has just been a mess. I was like, ‘Oh yay, extra time.’ But my extra time has turned into getting hurt and getting sick … But everyone is in the same boat. Tons of people couldn’t train because of COVID and a lot of people are struggling—so I’m not the only one.” 

Despite the setbacks, Skinner remains committed to her goal and knows in the end, everything will work out how it’s supposed to. 

“These next three months are going to be so stressful, but no matter how hard it’s going to be, I just want to enjoy it and enjoy the process because I’m not going to come back after this. This is it for me.” 

(Note: Skinner has one more year of eligibility at the University of Utah and is not ruling that out yet. However, she is waiting until after Tokyo to see how her body feels before making a decision.) 

For the upcoming competition season, Skinner is focused on cleaning up her execution and working old skills back into her routines. She is hoping to add the clear hip full to double double dismount off bars as well as a full-in dismount off beam by the time U.S. Championships roll around. She has also been working hard in the gym to clean up bars and beam—two events that have historically been her weakest.

“At this point, for me it’s more important to be clean and hit my stuff because I already have good difficultly,” Skinner said. “Obviously I would like to add in more because there’s so many things I could do but when it really comes down to it, on the Olympic team they are going to want somebody who can do all-around and hit four events.”

The plan for the upcoming GK U.S. Classic is to compete all four events so she can “get all the nerves out” before the U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials. It’s been a while since she has competed, but she hopes that same energy and excitement she had in 2019 will re-emerge once she steps out onto the competition floor.  

As the trials near, Skinner said she feels the pressure; she has thought about how it would feel to not make the Olympic team. She has also thought about how great it would feel to stand atop the medal podium in Tokyo. At the end of the day, she said the comeback will have been worth it. 

“This is my last shot and I just want to end on a good note,” Skinner said. “Whether I make the Olympic team or not, I’m just so proud of myself for pushing it out for one more year. Not a lot of gymnasts get this far and for me to come back from college… I don’t know how I’ve done it. I’m just super blessed to be here, and it will all work out the way it’s supposed to.”

Photo credits: Ricardo Bufolin, Grace Chiu and Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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