There is no greater stage in gymnastics than the Olympics. To represent oneself and one’s country at the Games is the pinnacle of achievement in the sport.
For all of the storied success of the University of Utah’s women’s gymnastics program, only six Red Rocks have ever reached those heights. Missy Marlowe did, as did Cheryl Weatherstone, Crystal Gilmore, Gael Mackie, Daria Bijak and Nansy Damianova. That’s it, of the hundreds of athletes who’ve competed for the U.
Only one of those — Marlowe — did so while representing the United States, but she won’t be the only American for much longer.
When the qualification round begins at the Tokyo Olympics Sunday morning at midnight MT, two American gymnasts who have or will compete for Utah — MyKayla Skinner and Grace McCallum — will take to the floor with hopes of earning the chance to win a medal.
A third, Kara Eaker, was supposed be waiting in the wings, ready at a moment’s notice just in case, but news broke Monday that she tested positive for COVID-19 and will have to isolate for 8-14 days.
Skinner and McCallum will join Marlowe as the only Red Rocks to be U.S. Olympians, while Eaker will join Skinner, Corrie Lothrop and Theresa Kulikowski as the only Ute U.S. alternates.
The trio have made Utah gymnastics history, so it is little surprise that anyone and everyone involved with the Red Rocks is very excited.
“It is wonderful,” Utah head coach Tom Farden told the Deseret News. “It is a little surreal to have three athletes of that caliber in Tokyo.”
All three legitimately battled for Olympic berths at the U.S. Olympic trials in late June. At the close of the two-day competition, it was anyone’s best guess who would make the team, with McCallum finishing fourth overall, while Skinner closed in fifth and Eaker in seventh.
McCallum, ultimately, was selected for the four-woman U.S. team, along with Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles, while Skinner earned one of two individual spots — Jade Carey had previously earned the other individual berth — with Eaker being named one of four alternates.
“I am so proud of myself that I did the best that I could do and that is really all that matters,” Skinner said.
The team selection proved controversial, with debates centering on McCallum making the four-woman team over Skinner or Skinner being awarded an individual spot instead of Kayla DiCello, Leanne Wong, Eaker or Emma Malabuyo. In the end, USA Gymnastics believed that McCallum and Skinner give the U.S. its best chance to medal in Tokyo, and medal often at that.
“Grace demonstrated consistency and resilience across both days of competition at the Olympic Trials, hitting all eight routines,” USA Gymnastics’ report on Olympic team selection read. “... The Committee determined that MyKayla Skinner was the athlete with the greatest medal potential based on her vault performances scoring 15.000 or higher consistently, coupled with her fifth place all-around ranking in the final results from Olympic Trials.
“In addition, MyKayla’s international competitiveness and experience, along with her high vault difficulty-scores, compared to the top competitors from other countries, helped the committee determine that she would be selected to the individual +1 NOC quota place to Tokyo.”
In Farden’s eyes, all three Red Rocks are Olympians. Gymnastics teams at the Games have steadily grown smaller and smaller over the years. Go back to just the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the U.S. team was comprised of six gymnasts with no individual competitors. A decade before that, in 1996, there were seven gymnasts on Team USA.
“In a normal year, Kara would have been on the Olympic team and so would MyKayla,” Farden said. “When the Olympic committee changed the seedings and went to a four-woman team, with up to two individuals competing for medals, it changed the whole thing. Back in the day, they all would be on the Olympic team. That is how good they are.”
How good they are at the Olympics will be determined over the course of five days of competition, starting Sunday and continuing through Aug. 3.
Qualification comes first, for both the team final and the individual event finals. Skinner and McCallum must finish in the top 36 overall among all gymnasts, plus in the top 2 of all American gymnasts, in order to qualify for any event finals.
Vault is Skinner’s signature event, but in order to even contend for a medal later in the Games, she’ll need to be better than all but one of Biles, Lee, Chiles, McCallum and Carey during qualification.
The team final will take place on July 27, at 4:45 a.m. and Team USA will be the gold medal favorites, with Chinese and Russians standing as the other chief competitors.
The event finals, meanwhile, will go as follows, with all days of competition being streamed live at 2 a.m. on NBCOlympics.com:
- Aug. 1 — Vault and uneven bars finals.
- Aug. 2 — Floor exercise final.
- Aug. 3 — Balance beam final.
Skinner is expected to contend for a medal on vault, but the gymnast, renowned for her competitiveness, expects to be in the hunt elsewhere.
“You never know what can happen,” Skinner said in a press conference after Olympic trials. “I want to be able to step in if I need to, even (to make) bars and beam finals. Probably not gonna happen, but it’s cool I have the opportunity to try.”
Skinner has been training diligently for just that, and in a July 11 video posted on her YouTube channel, she showed off the results of that training, including improved execution on bars.
McCallum also hopes to contend for individual medals. Prior to injuring her hand in January, a setback that required surgery, McCallum was viewed as one of the best American bar workers and a legitimate contender on both floor and vault.
She was still in recovery at the Olympic trials, so the McCallum that shows up at the Olympics could look significantly different from the one who competed in late June. That is her hope.
“I have been focusing on getting all my routines perfected, upping my endurance on floor, playing with a few things on bars, working on consistency and form on beam and my power on vault,” McCallum told CBS Minnesota. “I want to really get the good routines that I want to show. The goal is to make all the event finals for the team and to contribute any way that I can. I want to get an individual medal, but we’ll see.”
Eaker is known for her elite work on beam, and if able to compete following her quarantine, she would be considered a medal contender. If her isolation period is on the shorter side, Eaker could be available during the team final if needed.
“She has artistry that is through the roof,” Farden said. “If you watch her, just the way she works, she just has this quiet confidence about her.”
Having three Utah gymnasts go to the Olympics is a dream come true for Farden, even if Skinner recently went pro and retired from collegiate gymnastics. After having coached Skinner for three years at Utah, watching her lifelong dream come true is almost indescribable for him.
“I was elated, just because I knew how bad she wanted it,” Farden said. “Her whole life’s ambition has been to be an Olympian.”
As for McCallum and Eaker, they’ll soon be on campus at the U., and the expectation is the Utah program that finished No. 3 in the country this past season will only rise with them.
“They are going to come in after competing on the world stage at the highest level and they are going to have that confidence that we saw when MyKayla came here,” Farden said. “To have two athletes with that kind of experience, I think it bodes well.”
Before that, though, the eyes of the world will be on the Red Rocks in Tokyo.