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Inside MyKayla Skinner’s unusual road to the Olympics

Skinner is one of six American women gymnasts who will compete in Tokyo, and her path to the Olympics was anything but the expected

MyKayla Skinner warms up before the start of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
MyKayla Skinner warms up before the start of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Fort Worth, Texas. Skinner overcame odds and injuries to become a U.S. Olympian.
Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

Chelsea Barney sat inside The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri, home of the 2021 U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, with no shortage of thoughts running through her head.

It was the night of June 28, the trials were over and Barney had just watched her baby sister, MyKayla Skinner, compete for possibly the last time in her career.

Ten years Skinner’s senior, Barney had already cried plenty that night, the emotions of a lifetime bubbling over with the coming and going of each of her sister’s routines. And with the Olympic selection committee in the midst of deliberations regarding which gymnasts would represent the United States at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Barney couldn’t help but think about her present situation: sitting there, surrounded by family and friends, waiting for what felt like forever to hear whether or not Skinner had made the team.

It was, in a word, awful.

“This isn’t fun,” Barney thought, sitting there miked up for a forthcoming documentary, all while fighting back the urge to vomit and simultaneously trying not to cry more. “There is nothing about this that is fun.”

Right next to Barney, on her left, was Jonas Harmer. Skinner’s husband, Harmer had almost identical thoughts to those of his sister-in-law. Earlier in the evening, he’d even asked Barney why Skinner had to do gymnastics at all, partly in jest, but less so than you’d think.

“Why can’t MyKayla do something easy like swimming, where you go in a straight line and you’re done?” Harmer said. “There are so many ways you can mess up on every event.”

Even now, weeks later and on the eve of Olympic gymnastics competition, Barney and Harmer remember the anguish they felt that night in St. Louis.

“It was kind of awful,” Harmer said. “I just got so nervous for her. Everything was on the line. That was the moment her whole gymnastics career had been building toward.”

In retrospect, they needn’t have worried. When the gymnasts came back out onto the floor, Skinner was an Olympian, selected as an individual competitor for the Games.

As she put it afterward, it was nothing if not a dream come true.

“I will never forget that moment,” Skinner said. “I’m on the Olympic team! What? Like, what? This doesn’t seem real. All my hard work has paid off. I made it. I did it. It is really exciting for me to be competing and go out there representing Team USA. Keep reaching for your goals and dreams. They come true.”

Anything but gymnastics

Making it to the Olympics and competing for the United States wasn’t always Skinner’s dream. It became one, but it took a while.

Skinner almost didn’t even do gymnastics. Her mother Kym had put her older siblings Jeremy, Chelsea and Katie in the sport when they were young, but by the time MyKayla was 5 years old — she is the baby of the family — her mom had just about had enough.

“I was getting burnt out,” Kym Skinner said. “I had MyKayla when I was 40 and my husband traveled and was always gone. It was getting kind of strenuous.”

If not for a friend who owned a local gym, MyKayla might have lived a life in anonymity, but that friend convinced Kym Skinner to put her youngest into the sport after watching Myk, as she is affectionally known, “mess and bounce around.”

It wasn’t love at first tumble, however. Nor second, nor even third. In fact, for the first six or so years of MyKayla Skinner’s career, she wasn’t invested in gymnastics. Like at all.

“MyKayla was like ‘eh,’” Barney said. “She didn’t care.”

Rather than train in a gym, MyKayla would rather play with her friends. Go places, do things. Anything else really.

It got to the point that even now when asked, her family can’t definitively say she actually loves gymnastics. She absolutely loves competition (more on that in a bit) and she can’t get enough of doing big skills.

But gymnastics itself?

“She was just naturally so good and things just came easy to her,” Barney said. “This sounds horrible, but she didn’t have to try as hard. She would just go and do things. She was so good at it. The whole time she has done gymnastics, I think she loves it, but she doesn’t talk about it. She is very competitive, quietly, but she isn’t a kid that is like, ‘I love gymnastics.’”

If anyone were to know, it would be Barney. For most of MyKayla’s life, she has been almost a second mom to her. She is a friend, a confidant and a support.

“I was more her mom than a sister all growing up,” Barney said. “My mom has bad knees and can’t walk really fast so she couldn’t do a lot of those fun things, so I took on that role with MyKayla. I went shopping with her, got her ready for the first day of school, went to every gymnastics meet and took her to practice when I could. We just have a really close bond.”

So much so that it is Barney who MyKayla calls whenever she has a major decision to make.

“Every time there is a ‘should I do this?’ moment we talk about it,” Barney said.

Rapid rise

MyKayla Skinner performs in the floor exercise at the U.S. women’s gymnastic championships on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, in Pittsburgh.
Keith Srakocic, Associated Press

So when did the Olympics become the dream for Skinner? Realistically, not until 2012.

That was the year that a 15-year-old Skinner came close to earning a spot at the Olympic trials for the first time. Almost making it into that competition opened her eyes a bit to her possibilities.

“That was when she started to talk like, ‘But, what if I made it?’” Barney said. “We didn’t think it was very realistic, but I think that was the point where she realized she wanted to do that. She got a taste of it.”

The fact that Skinner could even potentially make it to Olympic trials in 2012 goes back to when she was 11. That was her age when she moved to Desert Lights Gymnastics. In short order, and after Lisa Spini became her head coach, Skinner went from being a Level 8 gymnast to a Level 10 gymnast, moving up a level almost meet by meet.

She didn’t win competitions all that often at first, as the difficulty of her skills grew rapidly, but the potential was there. She just had some catching up to do.

“When Lisa got her she said, ‘We have to go fast,’” Kym Skinner said. “Time was running out.”

Becoming an Elite gymnast forced Skinner to recognize just how gifted she was, and her commitment to the sport grew as result. By the time the 2016 Olympic trials rolled around, Skinner was a real contender to make the U.S. team and go to Rio de Janeiro. She didn’t make the team that year, however, and was instead named an alternate. It was an outcome that effectively changed her life.

“She worked really, really hard to make it in 2016, and once she was told she was just not quite good enough, I think that was a punch to the gut,” Barney said. “That was brutal. It took a little bit of time for that to set in and she was kind of in a dark place.”

A reprieve

Following the 2016 Olympics, Skinner had a difficult decision to make. She could have gone pro and attempted to profit off her standing as one of the United States’ best gymnasts, while perhaps training for the 2020 Olympics.

The other option was to go the NCAA route and attend the University of Utah. After making the trip to a few cities on Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, Skinner decided she’d become a Ute.

“We felt comfortable with Utah,” Kym Skinner said. “It was where she wanted to go.”

The choice proved a good one and not just because Skinner became one of the greatest gymnasts in Utah history. Collegiate gymnastics is significantly less intense than Elite gymnastics and afforded her time to rest her body. The emphasis on perfection rather than difficulty also helped Skinner improve on some of the basics that she kind of had to gloss over during her rapid rise in the sport as a preteen/teenager.

“They cleaned up some details that she didn’t have time to do in Elite,” Barney said. “I think it was really good for her gymnastics.”

Skinner was a two-time NCAA champion at Utah and earned a host of other accolades. Oh, and she met Harmer, too.

When she ultimately decided to defer her senior season at the U., she had nothing but good things to say about her time up on the Hill.

“My time here has meant the world,” Skinner said at the time. “It has been incredible. I accomplished way more in the past three years than I ever thought I was going to do. Everything I got to be a part of, being a part of this Utah legacy has been incredible.

“It was a difficult decision. It is hard to leave the team. I don’t want to hurt the team or the coaches’ feelings, anyone’s feelings, because I want to be there and support them as much as I can.”

The return

MyKayla Skinner competes in the vault during the senior women’s competition at the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo.
Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

The decision to leave Utah and return to the Elite ranks did not come easy for Skinner, nor did it come instantaneously. The idea of attempting to qualify for the 2020 Olympics didn’t enter her head until her junior season, and even then, she didn’t want to think about it or talk about it much.

“I would ask her, and a lot of people started to ask, but she didn’t really like thinking about it,” Harmer said. “It would kind of stress her out.”

It was even something of a joke at first, the idea of leaving Utah early, but over time it became more and more real, especially when Skinner’s head coach, Tom Farden, began to inquire about her future.

“As time passed, and as Tom reached out to MyKayla and said, ‘We need to know,’ I don’t think she really knew what to do,” Barney said. “Then all of a sudden she had to make a decision.”

The official decision was made known to Farden and co-head coach Megan Marsden at the NCAA national championships in Fort Worth, Texas, when the coaches sat down with Skinner and her mom. Shortly thereafter, the news became official to everyone and Skinner returned to Arizona and Desert Lights with her eyes on the Olympics.

In the winter of 2019, it appeared that Skinner just might be able to pull off the unprecedented comeback when she was named an alternate on the U.S. team that would go on to win a gold medal at the World Championships. She had momentum on her side, it seemed.

And then COVID-19 happened.

The pandemic forced a one-year postponement of the 2020 Olympics and Skinner was left in shock, almost despair.

“She really wanted to be done,” Harmer said. “She could see the light at the end of the tunnel and then all of a sudden everything was pushed back 12 months. She had to think about what it meant for her college career and for her life after gymnastics. She had to think about whether or not her body could hold up.”

Skinner didn’t wake up one day and decide that she was going to continue in her attempt to qualify for the Olympics. She just kept doing what she’d been doing — going to practice, physical therapy and her personal trainer — and before long she was officially still trying to make it to the Games.

Injury after injury

A major motivating factor in Skinner’s push to make it to Tokyo has been the question: What if?

Frequently, when Skinner came to Barney for advice over the last couple of years, the question has been asked, “What if you don’t do it? Are you going to regret it?”

“We all wanted her to have that (Olympic) moment, but I never pressured her to do it,” Barney said. “I wanted it to be 100% her decision. She has to do the work and be in front of the public eye. I’m always just here for support. She will never let us down. It has never been about us, always about her.”

The concept of regret became magnified, though, when Skinner began to struggle with health issues that she had largely avoided in her career. First in the fall of 2020 came a bone spur in her foot that aggravated her Achilles tendon. She had two treatment options, surgery or platelet-rich plasma injection and opted for the latter in hopes of limiting her down time.

Shortly after the injections began to take effect, however, Skinner contracted COVID-19. As she began to recover from that, she developed pneumonia and was hospitalized. After that, she hurt her elbow while training on the uneven bars, and then to add insult to all the injuries, her other foot began to hurt.

“It was pretty stressful, honestly,” Harmer said. “It was hard for me because there really wasn’t anything I could do about it. It felt like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Something would come up, like her bone spur, and then it would get better and then boom, something else would go wrong.

“It was hard for me to see that. I went to the gym once or twice a week to film for her YouTube channel, and the stuff I don’t put in, the things people don’t see, is when she’ll land a pass and then she’ll sit down because she is trying not to cry because it hurts so bad.”

Harmer isn’t the only one who struggled. Skinner herself had an incredibly difficult time with all the injuries and setbacks, and frequently called Barney in tears.

“There were days where she cried every day and said, ‘There is no way I can do this, I’m done,’” Barney said. “When she came back from COVID-19 and couldn’t get through one tumbling pass, she called me crying, saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ We’d never seen her go through something that hard. I know Jonas struggled. I struggled.”

Finally, an Olympian

MyKayla Skinner after competing on the uneven bars during the women’s U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials Friday, June 25, 2021, in St. Louis.
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

Skinner herself might not even know exactly what propelled her through all the setbacks and the injuries, but an inescapable part of that calculus is her competitive spirit. Regarded as the quiet and mellow one in the Skinner clan, she nonetheless possesses a resiliency that only the most elite athletes can lay claim to.

“There is something that sets MyKayla apart from a lot of people, and that is the mindset,” Kym Skinner said. “MyKayla doesn’t give up.”

That was on display this summer, starting with the U.S. Classic, and then continuing with the U.S. Championships. Despite being well behind where she hoped to be in her training, Skinner nonetheless managed to prove herself a legitimate Olympic contender, willing herself to strong performances that her body may not have been physically ready for.

“She is all in on whatever she does,” Harmer said. “She wants to do it right and she wants to win. ... She wants to do the best that she can.”

As Barney sat, in agony, waiting for the Olympic selection committee to make their decision, she got a text message.

It was from Skinner. Her sister wanted the unadulterated truth. Had she done enough to make the Olympic team?

The question immediately took Barney back in time five years, to 2016.

“I remembered MyKayla texted me then, asking, ‘Do you think I did it? Do you think I did enough? Do you think they are going to put me on the team?’” Barney said. “And here we were in 2021 and she is literally texting me again. All those emotions came back.”

Barney didn’t know what to say. She’d be there for her sister, ready to pick her up if she was selected as an alternate again, but Skinner’s hopes for an Olympic berth seemed faint after she finished fifth overall at trials.

When Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum walked out onto the floor a short time later, Barney went pale. Skinner hadn’t made it.

“I looked at Jonas and said, ‘She didn’t make it.’ I think I went into shock,” Barney said.

Acceptance came quick, though, even as Barney, Harmer and the rest of the Skinners sat in stunned silence.

“I thought, ‘It is OK. She’ll be an alternate again and we’ll have to pick her up,’” Barney said. “That is where I was.”

Then the completely unexpected happened. Skinner walked out onto the floor and the announcement rang out that she had been selected for the one remaining individual spot.

Immediate cheers didn’t ring out. The Skinners were simply dumbfounded. That is until Barney turned to Harmer and said, “She made it. She is an Olympian. She is going.”

And with that, the celebration began and the awful turned into ecstasy.