By Ashlee Buhler, Christy Sandmaier contributing

You remember the team names: Mag 7, Fierce Five, Final Five. The name and the historical accomplishment are synonymous.

In 1996, the Magnificent 7 captured team gold in Atlanta for the first time in the history of U.S. women’s gymnastics. In London 2012, a 16-year team gold-medal drought was ended by the Fierce Five, and in 2016, the Final Five came together to make a lifelong dream come true at the top of the medal podium in Rio. They became household names, known by fans around the world and solidified the dominance of the U.S. women’s team in Olympic competition.

In Tokyo, the U.S. women are once again favored to win the team gold medal. However, the team composition itself and competition format will look different than anything we’ve ever seen at an Olympic Games. There will be four gymnasts on the U.S. team, plus two individuals rotating alongside them. Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum will compete for the team score. MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey will compete as individuals.

The catch is Skinner and Carey will not contribute to the team score in any way. They will train with the team and rotate with them during the qualification round, but at the end of the day, they are competing for themselves and the opportunity to win individual medals. If the U.S. reaches the top of the podium at the conclusion of the team final, Skinner and Carey will be watching from their hotel room, rather than the medal stand, as the national anthem plays and the U.S. flag raises. 

It has to be a tough spot to be in for both athletes, no matter the mental preparation and the time they’ve had to process their positions. After all, a team medal, a gold one, is all but a certainty for the U.S. and neither athlete will get one no matter how well they perform, or how high their scores in qualifications are.

For Skinner, making an Olympic team has been a long and winding journey that started almost a decade ago. She missed qualifying to Olympic Trials in 2012, and in 2016 she narrowly missed being named to the team. Instead, she was named an alternate. And then finally, after the most unprecedented year, when the odds seemed stacked against her, Skinner had the meet of her life in St. Louis at the Olympic Trials and finally realized her Olympic dream. 

“With the Olympics getting postponed, getting COVID, and not knowing if I’m even going to be ready for the Olympics and wondering if I’m wasting my time, it’s just really cool to know all my hard work has finally paid off and I made it,” Skinner said. “That’s something I’ll get to have for the rest of my life.”

It was a wait that felt like a lifetime, but Skinner knew it was out of her hands. She had given it her all, placed fifth All-Around at Trials, and it was up to the selection committee to determine the outcome. 

“The selection committee comes in and that’s when my heart drops,” Skinner said. “[Tom] named the first three, which I knew for sure were going to be on the team, and then I was like, ‘Ok. This is it.’ Then they announced Grace and I was like, ‘Ok I’m alternate again.’ Then he said the individual spot and called my name and I was like, ‘What the heck.’ I just didn’t think they would consider me for that spot.”

That’s because team USA already had Jade Carey, who pursued the nominative individual spot herself through the Apparatus World Cup series and had already mathematically clinched her spot by the time Trials rolled around. Carey excels on the same events as Skinner (vault and floor) and decided to pursue the individual spot in 2018 as a way to guarantee her spot in Tokyo.  

“I wasn’t totally ready in the All-Around yet and it made sense for me to do the series and just continue to train All-Around,” Carey told Inside Gymnastics in June 2020. “I’m happy I still trained all four events because with the individual spot, I can still compete All-Around.” 

An upside to the route Carey took is that while everyone else battled for their spots at Trials, she knew in the back of her mind she would be going to Tokyo no matter what. That had to bring some relief during arguably the most pressure-filled meet for an Elite gymnast in the United States–where making the team is often considered harder than winning an Olympic gold medal. 

For somebody like Skinner, all the pressure was on. The individual spot isn’t something she necessarily sought out, nor was it something she thought she was being considered for. When Skinner first came back to the Elite scene in 2019, she said High Performance Team Coordinator Tom Forster encouraged her to focus on doing the All-Around and making the four-person team since Carey was going for the individual spot. In Skinner’s mind she had two options: four-person team or alternate. She envisioned the other individual spot going to somebody who is the opposite of Carey such as Riley McCusker, who excels on bars and beam. 

While Skinner is happy her Olympic dream came true, being selected as an individual is definitely a bittersweet feeling. Being a part of an Olympic gold-medal winning team is a special moment that many young gymnasts dream about. Once achieved, there are accolades, media appearances, sponsorships, and special opportunities (hello cereal box) that come from being a part of the team. While the individuals are certainly a part of Team USA, there will be a distinction between them and the team. Even the leotards Skinner and Carey will wear during qualifications are different from what the team will be wearing. 

“It was a little bit of a bummer because of course I wanted to be a part of the team and that’s what I’ve been working really hard for,” Skinner said. “But, I can’t be sad either because I made the Olympic team and that’s so exciting! I’m just trying to wrap my head around it and figure out what I need to do for myself since I’m not really a part of the team.”

Skinner and Carey do not have the peace of mind knowing they will leave Tokyo with at least one medal: the team medal. If they want an Olympic medal they must do it on their own, and will be battling each other in qualifications for a spot in the event finals. The reality is, only two gymnasts per country can advance to each final, and with Simone Biles so dominant on vault and floor, only one of Skinner or Carey will even make the finals.   

Skinner understands the circumstances and although it is not a favorable position to be in, she is keeping her focus on what she can control: doing her best gymnastics. And no matter what happens, she will look back on the experience with pride. 

“There’s going to be stress and pressure no matter what, so I just want to do the best that I can and if that gets me a medal, then that gets me a medal. And if it doesn’t, it’s going to suck, but I’m going to live another day and at the end of it, at least I get to say I’m an Olympian,” Skinner said. 

Skinner is using that perspective to embrace the individual role. There is often a lot of pressure for the U.S. gymnasts to win medals, but she knows there is more to life than that. She pushed through a challenging year, overcame the odds, and proved the naysayers wrong. In the end, she achieved her biggest dream of becoming an Olympian, and that’s worth a lot. 

“In life, even if you’ve won a ton of medals, it’s not necessarily going to make you feel happy or feel good enough,” Skinner said. “Having success and having all your hard work pay off is amazing, but more of it comes from being able to love yourself from what you do. It’s not about the money or having all the medals in the world, it’s about doing what you love.”

Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Begins July 24.

Team USA Women Compete in Subdivision 3, July 25 at 2:10 a.m. ET

Photo by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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