“I sit in the gym and every day I’m like, ‘I could have had three more months in this place,’ ” said Skinner, an alternate for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. “I have to go through another year? Really? I know that’s my decision. … I’ve come so far. I feel like I shouldn’t give up.”
Even before the postponement added another hurdle, Skinner’s route toward Tokyo defied the norm. She opted to defer her final season of college gymnastics so she could train at the elite level. That’s still the plan, only now her final season will be in 2022, and it will require a waiver from the NCAA and some roster management on Utah’s end.
The relationship between elite and college gymnastics is typically a one-way street in the United States. About half of the gymnasts who have represented the United States at the past five Olympics also have competed in college, but nearly all of them headed to the NCAA after their elite careers.
Some international gymnasts (such as the University of California Berkeley’s Toni-Ann Williams, who represented Jamaica in 2016) have competed successfully for both their country and their college team. But the skill level required to make the U.S. Olympic team, along with monthly national team training camps, makes that difficult.
Even for gymnasts who love experimenting with new skills, college routines aren’t nearly as jam-packed with difficulty as elite routines.
“She knew that it’s going to take her a while to train, to get back up to speed in terms of the sheer length of the routines. … It’s just another level,” Utah Coach Tom Farden said of the jump back to elite, which uses a different scoring system than college.
For the past year, Skinner has trained at her club gym, Desert Lights. After only a few months of elite training, she placed eighth at nationals. The difficulty component of her scores was on par with other gymnasts expected to contend for Olympic spots.
“People say, ‘Oh, just work on her form,’ ” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s club coach. “She’d quit. She loves the tricks. She loves that adrenaline rush. It’s fun for her. Athletes are all different, and that’s what motivates her.”
Skinner nearly didn’t attend the selection camp for the 2019 world championships. Spini thought that time might be better spent training, with 2020 still the end goal. But they decided to try, and Skinner placed fourth. With the team leaving straight from Florida to Stuttgart, Germany, Skinner and her coach had to go to a mall to buy extra clothes for a trip they didn’t anticipate making.
When the Tokyo Olympics begin next summer, Skinner and Simone Biles will be 24, older than any U.S. Olympic gymnast since 2004. But Skinner and her coaches agree that she is a better gymnast now than she was in 2016.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s hard because she’s older,’ ” Skinner said. “But at the same time, I feel like I know how to make corrections faster, and I know what to fix. I know what I want, my dreams and goals. College really helped me mature, and it’s been so much better.”
Her work with Spini is more collaborative and efficient than it would be for a high schooler chasing an Olympic dream.
“I’m coaching an adult,” Spini said.
In 2016, Skinner finished fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials but wasn’t selected to the five-member team. She instead traveled to Rio de Janeiro as one of three alternates, who had the same daily training assignments as the team members but practiced at a separate facility. They watched from the stands as the team earned nine medals. Skinner remembers thinking during the team final about how close she came.
“I couldn’t even think about elite gymnastics for a while,” Skinner said. “It was definitely good for me to try something different.”
As Skinner headed to Salt Lake City, Spini asked the Utah coaches not to change her bars setting. All elites compete on the same setting, whereas college and club gymnasts can choose their own. That request hinted that Skinner might return to the elite world. She stored the goal in the back of her mind, knowing a path to Tokyo still existed.
In college, she performed high-level skills in front of Utah crowds that top the nation with about 15,000 fans per meet. She broke the NCAA record with 161 consecutive hit routines. She won floor at the NCAA championships in 2017 and vault in 2018.
Skinner competed a double-twisting Yurchenko, the hardest vault among college gymnasts and only half a twist shy of the Amanar she performs in elite. She practiced double-twisting double tucks off bars every day because it helped improve her college dismount with one less twist. Farden has never seen Skinner land short on a double-twisting double tuck on floor, the difficult first pass in her college routine.
If Skinner had competed simpler skills, “she would have been bored to death,” Spini said. Doing so also kept her Olympic dream alive.
“I think in her heart she knew that keeping all those skills sharp and competing them under pressure was going to help her if she did go for Tokyo,” Farden said.
When Skinner practiced at home during breaks from college, she experimented with skills such as triple-twisting double tucks — a move now named for Biles, who in 2019 became the first woman to perform it in competition.
Entering the 2016 Olympics, Skinner’s ability on vault and floor provided a boost for the team. She finished in the top three in both events at 2015 and 2016 nationals. But now she has improved significantly on bars. Skinner won the event — along with vault and floor — at a meet in Canada in March.
Skinner has posted videos of her performing rare release moves and dismounts. She added “bar swinger” to her Twitter bio. Whenever she gets frustrated in practice, Spini jokingly reminds her, “Hey, you’re an international bar champion.” The Olympic format for Tokyo calls for four-member teams, raising the premium on all-arounders, so Skinner’s progress on bars and beam carries extra value.
Desert Lights is closed to the public, but Skinner has continued training with only her coaches in the gym. This year’s domestic competitions are in limbo, with gymnasts unsure if they will be postponed or canceled.
Skinner’s path toward Tokyo remains long and complicated. The reprieve of an island vacation — or even the reward of enjoying one last college season — has been pushed further into the distance. It’s overwhelming to think about all these months ahead, but then there’s a piece of optimism — Skinner knows she might keep getting better.
“This might be good for me,” she said.