MyKayla Skinner optimistic despite having Olympic gymnastics dreams deferred again

MyKayla Skinner sat out the 2020 NCAA season in pursuit of making the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. With the Olympics postponed, she's now in limbo. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

While the "Final Five" vaulted, tumbled and dazzled their way to the team gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, MyKayla Skinner sat in the crowd cheering them on.

She was thrilled for them, but she couldn't help wanting to be out there, too.

Named one of the three alternates for the team, Skinner was in Brazil and training every day leading up to the competition, needing to be ready to perform with a moment's notice -- but never got the chance. She was just a few hundred feet from what she had wanted her whole life, but instead watched her teammates experience it, and it would remain just a dream for her.

Once she got home, she was ready to start her next chapter and headed to the University of Utah to begin her collegiate career. She found immediate success at that level, and won individual NCAA titles on floor (2017) and vault (2018) and finished in second in the all-around competition twice, but she just could never fully shake how she felt that day in Rio.

A few days after the 2019 NCAA championships, Skinner announced she would be deferring her senior year and returning to elite gymnastics to try to make her Olympic dream a reality.

"I kept coming back to this burning desire that I had always felt, and I kept going back to that moment where I was sitting there watching them in Rio," said Skinner, now 23, earlier this week. "I had the support from everyone at Utah, and my body was still in good shape, so I thought, 'Let's give this a try and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but at least I'll always know I tried.' Knowing how close I was last time gave me that push and that confidence, and I decided to come back and give it one last try to make that Olympic team representing the USA."

Skinner's Olympic dreams have been put on hold again with the Tokyo Olympics postponed until 2021. She was driving to her gym, Desert Lights, in Chandler, Arizona, when her husband, Jonas Harmer, called to tell her the weeks of speculation were turning into a reality.

"I knew a postponement was probably going to happen, but I tried to not think about it," she said. "I still kept telling myself, 'No, it will go on as scheduled, everything will move on the way it's supposed to.' I think I just didn't want to accept it. It was the right decision to make, and I know so many athletes around the world haven't been able to train at all, but it was still kind of devastating."

Now Skinner is in limbo. Prior to the postponement, she had planned on continuing with elite through the Olympics, regardless of whether she made the team or not, and then would have returned to Utah to complete her degree and compete with her final year of eligibility. She immediately had to reassess everything -- Did she want to continue with elite for another year? Could she remain injury free? What would this mean for college? Did she want to be a 25-year-old during her senior season?

She admitted she's not sure whether she would have left Utah if she had known it would have been a two-year commitment, but it doesn't much matter now.

"I don't know what I would have done had I known how this would play out," she said. "Honestly, maybe I would have finished my senior year and earned my degree, and then trained elite for a year. It's impossible to say.

"But I don't regret coming back and doing what I have so far. I've accomplished so much. I'm just really proud of myself for even being able to do what I have. I never thought I would have come this far."

Given she deferred her freshman season during the 2016 Olympics lead-up, she wasn't even sure whether the NCAA would grant her another year of eligibility, as athletes normally have a five-year window to use an athletic scholarship. The questions swirled in her mind. But she decided to go to practice and just focus on what she had to do that day.

Utah head coach Tom Farden encouraged her to do whatever she wanted to do and said they would find a roster spot for her if she came back to school. Skinner still isn't certain about what she will ultimately do, but for now she thinks she will continue with elite and try to make the team for Tokyo in 2021.

"The Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I've worked so hard to get this far," she said. "As of right now, I feel like I should not give up because I've been doing so good. I feel like that would just be such a waste of time to be doing all this and just to give up now. There are days where it's hard to stay motivated with everything that's going on right now, but in a way that's helped me find those little things I love so much about this sport, and it keeps me going."

When she left for elite gymnastics, she wasn't sure how she would fare nor if her body would be able to handle the rigorous training and upgraded skills required. But she had to find out.

In her first competition back, fewer than three months after returning to the elite level, Skinner finished second on vault in a tie with Jade Carey, trailing only Simone Biles. At national championships, she finished eighth in the all-around competition and third on vault, and was named to the national team. At world championship selection camp in September, she finished fourth in the all-around and earned a spot on the six-member team.

"I started this journey because I didn't want to have any regrets, and I think that's what is still pushing me now." MyKayla Skinner

Five gymnasts would ultimately compete for the team at worlds in Stuttgart, Germany, with one being named alternate. Skinner was the odd one out yet again, watching her teammates earn gold. However this time, in addition to receiving a medal, she took it as a sign of how much progress she had made in a short amount of time, giving her confidence to believe the 2020 Olympics were in reach.

In early March at the International Gymnix meet, she won the vault, floor and uneven bars titles, as well as a silver in the all-around, helping the U.S. team win gold.

And then the cancellations came.

These days, the gym is quiet. Classes and group training sessions have been canceled. It's typically just Skinner and her coaches, and occasionally her husband will come as well. Arizona issued a "stay at home" order, effective Tuesday night, but she wasn't quite sure what that meant for her. She was hopeful she could continue coming, but also wanted to be mindful of the rules and the well-being of her community.

Skinner has been in contact with some of her Utah teammates who had their season cut short, and has been texting with Biles, the defending Olympic all-around champion and fellow "grandma" (as both are 23, the oldest members of the team), and commiserating about having to continue pushing themselves for another year.

Still, she has already found something of a silver lining -- Skinner had been teasing a triple-double element on floor on her social channels for the past several months (Biles became the first woman to successfully perform it in competition last year) but didn't think she would have enough time to get it meet-ready. Now she has time to perfect that, as well as work on other upgrades, and continue to produce content for her new YouTube channel.

So for now, she'll settle for a dream deferred, because it still means there's a chance. And that's all she's really wanted since she began her comeback.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time, just kind of trying to stay positive through it all, and just get into the gym, and just keep plugging away for right now," she said. "If maybe down the road I decide this isn't what I want to do, I'll stop, but as of right now, I think the best option for me is to keep training and going for the Olympics. I started this journey because I didn't want to have any regrets, and I think that's what is still pushing me now."