Olympic hopeful MyKayla Skinner on training for Tokyo

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In 2016, gymnast MyKayla Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at the Olympic Trials, the unnamed top finisher on that year’s Olympic team. She was one of three substitutes at the Rio Games, where she cheered on teammates Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez from the sideline. “I had come so close to fulfilling my lifelong dream of winning gold,” Skinner says, “and at that point I realized I couldn’t give up right away. “

Now at 24, Skinner is fighting one last time for a spot on the Olympic team. If she succeeds, she will become the oldest Olympic gymnast in the United States since 2004. Ahead of the trials on June 24, the master vaulter talks about her long trip to Tokyo (including overcoming a foot injury and a positive COVID test) – and how she keeps her “head in the game”.


I was driving to the gym last year when my husband called and broke the news, “The Olympics have been postponed.” I almost swerved in oncoming traffic.

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I’m 24, which I know doesn’t look very old. But in the world of gymnastics, it is. The Tokyo Games are my last chance to compete as a gymnast for the United States team and my last chance to win a gold medal. “How could this happen?” I said to myself. Everything I had worked so hard for, and for so many years, seemed to crumble in front of me. I was so pissed off that I had a really good workout that day, fueled, I think, by my anger.

At first I saw the silver linings. Another year might be good to hone my skills. But during that time, I injured my foot, tested positive for COVID, and spent time in the hospital recovering from pneumonia. I feel stressed before the Olympic trials. I know it’s going to be tough, but I’ve come a long way already. I have to push a little longer.

Mykayla skinner upside down on the mat in midair wearing a shiny leotard

Skinner performs on the floor in the women’s team final at the 2014 Gymnastics World Championships in China.

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I knew I would try to compete in the Tokyo Olympics in 2016. I was sitting in the stands as a substitute at the Rio Olympics, watching my teammates compete and thinking, “It could have been me.” I had come so close to fulfilling my lifelong dream of winning gold, and at that point, I realized that I couldn’t give up right away.

After Rio, I joined the University of Utah gymnastics team. It was a difficult transition, as I have always competed in elite gymnastics, where we throw great skills. In college you don’t get any points for difficulty, but once I got the hang of it it was a snap. It was in college that I rediscovered my love for the sport after all that I have experienced as an elite gymnast.

mykayla skinner jumping on the floor in a red leotard and white and pink bow in her hair

Skinner competing at the 2016 P&G Gymnastics Championships in St. Louis, Missouri.

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My first foray into elite gymnastics was when I was 13 when I was invited to a national team training camp at the “ranch” with Olympians Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. [Editor’s note: The “ranch” is the former U.S. women’s gymnastics national team training center slash home of former gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi in Texas].

It wasn’t what I expected. We weren’t treated the way a bunch of some of the best athletes in the world should be treated. We had to be perfect at all times, which doesn’t make sense because in gymnastics you have to fail and make mistakes to improve. But if you fell into the camp, the reaction was, “We don’t want you anymore. It made me hate gymnastics, but that’s exactly what you did if you wanted to be on the Olympic team.

mykayla skinner in the air above the arch in a red glitter leotard and a bow in her bun

Skinner on the jump at the 2016 P&G Gymnastics Championships in St. Louis, Missouri.

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When Larry Nassar was at camp and a girl got injured, he would take them to the practice room, close the blinds, and close the door. It was weird, but I never gave it much thought because he was super nice and so good at what he did. It wasn’t until the Worlds in 2014 that it got really weird. He knocked on the door of the hotel room where Madison [Kocian, the two-time 2016 Olympic medalist] and I stayed, and I rushed inside. Then he paced around, before handing us some ice cream cones and leaving.

Two years later, Steve Penny [the former USA Gymnastics president] gathered a group of gymnasts in a room and said, “There are things going on right now, and it doesn’t look very good for us. Don’t walk around saying anything. Larry’s news broke a few months later. I guess it made sense in hindsight, but it was still hard to figure out because nothing ever happened to me. I was sad not to know. I wish I could help or be there for my friends. Thinking about it today still hurts my stomach.

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I hate that things have to go so badly before they can get better. Now when we go to the camp there is a lot of security. It looks like the organization is really trying to help us by seeing what works and what doesn’t. For now, I have the impression that things are going pretty well. And not just with regards to Larry, but also with the way the Olympic team is chosen and the way the coaches interact with the athletes.

To M [Forster, Team USA’s new high-performance team coordinator] actually speaks to us. He said to me: “If you have a problem, please come and see me”. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and it’s going to take a while for everything to get to where it needs to be, but it’s moving in the right direction.

mykayla skinner posing on the floor after completing the floor exercise wearing a black and pink leotard and matching pink bow

Skinner competes in the 2017 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics National Championship final in St. Louis, Missouri.

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After the pandemic, my gym remained partially open and I continued to train. I don’t know if it was the stress of postponing the Olympics, but my foot got really irritated. It was then that the doctors discovered a huge bone spur on the back of my foot. Surgery was out of the question as I wouldn’t have recovered in time for the Olympics. Instead, my doctor suggested a PRP [platelet-rich plasma] injection and rehabilitation. When I wake up in the morning my feet are stiff and it can hurt to walk.

The road to the Olympics was always going to be long, but I never anticipated how difficult it would become. About a week after my birthday last December, I tested positive for COVID. I am generally very energetic and super crazy. But all I wanted was to lie down.

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I tried working out at the gym, but had to leave because I wasn’t feeling well. I was doing a little more each day, but I was pushing my body too much. My chest was stiff and weird, which I thought was a lingering symptom of COVID, but which actually turned out to be pneumonia. All I could think of in the hospital was, “How am I supposed to be ready for the Olympics if I don’t have stamina?” I called my sister crying and said, “I’m so late”.

I was away from the gym for a little over a month in total. For a gymnast, it’s a lifetime. It definitely made me back down, which sucks. But it gave me more time for my foot to heal. Right now, I work out in the gym for five and a half hours everyday, with Wednesdays and Sundays free. I also go to a trainer twice a week and physiotherapy twice a week.

Mykayla Skinner Fisting Pumping In Black And Pink Glittery Leotard

Skinner reacts after competing on uneven bars at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas on June 6.

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With the Olympic trials coming up, I’m just trying to keep my head in the game. I tell myself “no regrets”. Whatever happens is meant to be. If I wasn’t good enough, I wouldn’t be here. I have that. I have the experience and I am a competitor. This is what I am here to do. I wouldn’t want it to be easy, because if it were, I wouldn’t want it so badly. There’s going to be a lot of blood, sweat, blood, and tears, but that’s the fun part.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


To learn more about all of the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23 on NBC.

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