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A week ago, MyKayla Skinner thought her gymnastics career was over. Now she’s an Olympic medalist.

MyKayla Skinner of Team USA poses with her silver medal. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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TOKYO — A week ago, MyKayla Skinner nearly boarded a plane back home to Arizona. Her experience at the Olympic Games had ended, and so had her gymnastics career. She hadn’t advanced to any finals, so she would forever be an Olympian, just not an Olympic medalist. At first, she was devastated. But after a couple of days, Skinner felt content and ready to dive into a life without gymnastics.

Then she received a text that her teammate and close friend Simone Biles knew needed to be sent quickly. Skinner couldn’t leave Tokyo just yet. Once Biles withdrew from the team final and her status for the upcoming apparatus finals remained unclear, Skinner realized her career might not have actually ended. She found out Saturday that Biles had officially withdrawn from the vault final. By Sunday evening, Skinner was back in a leotard, stepping in as the alternate. One final moment in her career awaited.

The 24-year-old had two more vaults to go with the chance to earn an Olympic medal. She had a solid performance, with just a hop on each of her landings. She waved as she walked off the podium — a goodbye to her career in a mostly empty arena — and then she waited. As the first gymnast to perform, Skinner had to watch seven competitors try to outscore her 14.916. But some of the top contenders had landing errors, and U.S. teammate Jade Carey, who qualified with the second-best score behind Biles, appeared to trip on the runway and couldn’t execute the vault she intended.

Only one gymnast, Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, earned a higher mark, so Skinner clinched the silver medal. As she walked into the arena for the medal ceremony, Biles jumped up and down while pumping her fists in the stands.

“I’m just so honored that I never gave up and have kept pushing for my dreams to get here,” Skinner said.

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Those vaults marked the end of Skinner’s winding path that ventured through elite gymnastics into college and back again. Her desire to perform on the Olympic stage never wavered, even after she walked onto the floor at the U.S. Olympic trials five years ago sobbing because she had been named only an alternate for the 2016 team.

Skinner finished fourth at those trials, but she didn’t land on the five-member team because athletes with different strengths gave the United States a higher scoring potential. Skinner then trained in Rio de Janeiro and watched the competition from the stands, thinking about how close she came to reaching that goal.

After returning home, Skinner headed to the University of Utah and into the world of college gymnastics, where, for many athletes, Olympic dreams dissipate into NCAA-centered ambitions. Routines become simpler. The training load is more manageable. But Skinner didn’t let her hopes of landing on the Olympic team fade.

She didn’t change her bars setting from the one that fits the elite standard. Skinner kept training all her difficult skills. After she finished her assignment for the day on beam, she practiced her elite-level tumbling series that includes a full-twisting backflip. She continued to train her Amanar, which is a Yurchenko with a 2½ twist and was one of her vaults during Sunday’s apparatus final. She practiced double-twisting double layouts, an element that wasn’t included in her still-difficult college floor routine.

Skinner trained those skills on the side as extra work, not because they directly contributed to her NCAA success but because they kept alive the dream that would never go away.

“MyKayla was a born fighter,” Utah Coach Tom Farden said, “and somebody who never gave up on the dream of being an Olympian.”

Skinner spent three years at Utah, setting an NCAA record by hitting 161 consecutive routines without a fall. She won NCAA titles on vault and floor, and she twice finished second in the all-around competition. She had one of the most impressive college careers in the sport’s history, but as the Olympic year approached, she headed back to her club gym in Arizona.

One year of training at the elite level turned into two because of the postponement of the Games. During that extra year, Skinner dealt with a bone spur in her foot, and just as she began to tumble again, Skinner contracted the coronavirus. After weeks away from training, she returned to the gym but then felt sick again. After a trip to the hospital, Skinner found out she had pneumonia, another major setback that left her questioning how she would regain her endurance.

Skinner improved as the 2021 season progressed, peaking at the trials with eight hit routines across two days of competition. Skinner had told Farden that her “ultimate goal in life” was to make the Olympic team.

“This has been her ambition and she has never shied away from it,” said Farden, who attended the trials. “That is not a woman who backs down on big goals.”

Skinner placed fifth at this year’s trials, and the United States needed to select a four-person team and an individual to join Carey in Tokyo. The top-scoring team based on the results from trials included Skinner rather than fourth-place finisher Grace McCallum. But high performance director Tom Forster didn’t want to exclude a top-four athlete from the four-person team, citing the need to preserve “the integrity of the competition,” so Skinner was left off the team again, and McCallum performed well here in Tokyo.

Given the desire to maximize Team USA’s medal potential, Skinner wouldn’t have made the most sense to go to Tokyo as an individual athlete. The United States already had Biles and Carey, who qualified as an individual through the apparatus World Cup series. Only two athletes can advance to each final. But Forster still selected Skinner as an individual.

“Obviously I would have loved to be on the four-man team, but taking that individual spot either way is super cool,” Skinner said after the trials. “I finally get to be an Olympian.”

In the qualifying round, the reality of having Biles, Carey and Skinner on the same team set in. Only two could advance to the medal round, even though all three finished in the top eight. Skinner landed in fourth but was third among the Americans, so she was left out. As the team rotated to bars midway through the competition, Skinner knew her Olympics would be over after just one day of competition and with no finals and no medals.

But then it all changed when Biles withdrew to focus on her mental health. After the United States won the silver medal in the team final, Biles said she felt as if her medal was for Skinner, too, because she knew how badly she wanted one. And now Skinner has a medal of her own.

“To have her support and her having to step out of finals and her just pushing me along every single day to help me to place on that podium has been so cool,” Skinner said. “This has seriously just been so humbling, and I’m just so grateful to be here.”

Now this really is the end. Skinner has another year of college eligibility, but “it's time for me to move on with life,” she said. “I'm ready.”

She wants to pursue a job in sports broadcasting and start a family. Her career in gymnastics will slowly move further into the past, but this whirlwind of a week allowed her to capture a perfect ending — standing on the medal podium at the Olympic Games.