Sports

The Most Hated Gymnast in the NCAA

… is also the best gymnast in the NCAA. Why won’t the sport embrace Utah’s MyKayla Skinner?

MyKayla Skinner raises her arms above her head and shouts.
MyKayla Skinner reacts after finishing her floor exercise at the NCAA gymnastics championship on April 21, 2018, at the Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.
Richard Ulreich/Zuma Press/Cal Sport Media via AP Images

At an NCAA regional gymnastics competition earlier this month, University of Utah junior MyKayla Skinner did the unthinkable: She fell on the uneven bars. It’s true that falls are pretty standard in gymnastics (Stick It wouldn’t lie to you), but Skinner simply does not fall in competition. This was the first miss of her NCAA career, ending a 161-routine hit streak, the longest in collegiate history. (The fall occurs at 48:30, when she misses her big release move.)

The rest of Skinner’s routine was nearly perfect, but it didn’t matter. After she landed her dismount, she quickly saluted and rejoined her team, her face inscrutable but clearly lacking the post-routine jubilation for which NCAA gymnastics is famous. Her reaction was remarkably stoic, given the fall’s significance —but MyKayla Skinner was not about to let the haters see her cry.

For though Skinner can always count on the notoriously hardcore fans of the Red Rocks (the Ute gym squad has its own nickname), outside of Utah, her reception is markedly less warm. And this isn’t because she’s not good—in fact, she’s great. Her difficulty and consistency are unmatched in the NCAA, but even when she doesn’t fall, her scoring often comes up short of perfection. She’s routinely shown up by rivals such as UCLA’s Kyla Ross, who compete with a much lower level of difficulty. Ross—known for her elegance and technique—is widely considered the favorite for the individual all-around title at this year’s national championships, which start Friday. This, unsurprisingly, infuriates Utah’s rabid booster base and delights the many, many, many pourers of MyKayla Skinner haterade, collegiate gymnastics’ unofficial beverage of choice.

Indeed, Skinner, despite being by many metrics the best college gymnast in the country, might just be the most reviled gymnast in the NCAA—and I, for one, think people should give her a damn break.

So what’s the deal? Why is MyKayla Skinner so controversial? In a word: attitude. Despite being an outstanding gymnast—her opening tumbling pass on floor is a double-double, which most international elites can’t throw—Skinner lacks one key quality that all champion gymnasts must possess: the constant smile required even of athletes being carried off the floor. Yes, in the post–Larry Nassar world of U.S. gymnastics, at both the elite and collegiate levels, gymnasts are now “allowed” to do all sorts of things they once couldn’t: eat, date, speak up for themselves in certain highly regulated situations. But one thing still remains strictly verboten in gym world: a so-called bad attitude. And Skinner is as famous for hers as she is for that double-double.

Take, for example, her widely-shared reaction to the 9.925 she received after a hit floor routine during the same meet that viral UCLA star Katelyn Ohashi got the same score with a lacking first-pass landing:

Skinner lunges at the judges with a venomous WTF look and only steps off when a coach hugs her away. (It is strictly forbidden for athletes to interact with judges in any way outside of the official presentation lineup before an event.)

Then there was the scandalette of 2018, when an improvised salute to teammates in her floor choreography was immediately interpreted as “finger guns” at a rival squad. Or more recently, the time she tweeted: “So far this season I’ve stuck 5 [Yurchenko] double fulls without both judges giving me a 10. Stay tuned for our meet vs UCLA on Saturday and see if we can make it 6!!”

And it’s not just in the moments of slight that Skinner’s alleged ’tude eclipses her skills: When she’s on, she is perceived as cocky, lip-syncing along midroutine with the Carrie Underwood song that works as her unofficial “beam music,” or engaging in an even more outré version of a touchdown dance, pumping her fists and crying out in what appears, to haters, to be aggression rather than shiny, nonthreatening joy. Television commentators, those masters of euphemism, call her “fiercely competitive.”

Skinner first gained international fame as an elite in 2016 when she had a spectacular showing at the Olympic Trials but ended up going to Rio as an alternate thanks to some behind-the-scenes calculation. In her grief, and being a prolific social-media teen, Skinner retweeted some unsavory responses to her slight —including a doctored photo that showed her face on the body of two-time gold medalist Gabby Douglas and included a racist series of emojis. (Skinner later apologized and seemed genuinely contrite, if inarticulate, in that contrition.)

Though the retweet was a legitimately problematic act for which Skinner shouldn’t get a pass, it was the sour grapes themselves that cemented her villain edit in the gymnastics world. Oh, MyKayla Skinner—good gymnastics, but what a terrible attitude! And despite the stratospheric level of her gymnastics, her villain image has only grown in the NCAA to the point it’s affecting her results.

It is, for example, widely assumed that her comportment is the reason Skinner is continually passed up for conferencewide awards, and why she more often than not misses out on that coveted 10 despite 161 hit routines and almost as many stuck landings. Haters will claim her feet are flexed or her chest is slightly too low or another “obvious” form deduction, but NCAA judging is famously, woefully subjective, and—as any Utah fan will remind you—that 10 is an honor bestowed quite often upon Skinner’s joyful colleagues in blue, despite their share of flexed feet and the like. Yes, it’s worth remembering that the NCAA is not elite competition. Execution (allegedly) matters more than difficulty, and as long as athletes have the minimum skills required for a 10.0 “start value,” that dime is within their reach, double-double or no. And Skinner certainly knows this—but still, it must be pretty frustrating to (probably) lose the national title to an athlete with a fraction of the difficulty.

In so many other sports, attitude is often viewed as competitiveness. This is especially the case in men’s sports. As the Gymternet’s Lauren Hopkins has pointed out, “plenty of male athletes” get salty with few of the consequences, and Skinner’s sportsmanship transgressions are comparatively tame. But there is something particular to the “beauty sports” (gymnastics, figure skating, etc.) that requires an inerrantly sweet disposition—one that matches the pageant hair and makeup from the neck up, and not the grueling training and grit required for everything neck-down. (Remember when Skinner’s alleged 2016 usurper Douglas also got the villain edit, and the nickname “Crabby Gabby,” for not being sufficiently beatific on the medal stand?) Skinner is not doing anything that generations of athletes haven’t done before her—but because she’s doing it in rhinestones and an updo, suddenly it matters.

Much has been said in recent years, and deservedly so, about the toxicity that accompanied American gymnastics’ rise to worldwide dominance. The running narrative this season has been about how many athletes—Ohashi most prominently—have been able to find joy in the NCAA after withstanding the trauma of the elite world. Ohashi got mega-famous because her floor routine’s ebullient pop moves were, to the greater viewing public, subversive. But they were subversive with a megawatt smile, and that continues to be the only kind of subversion that’s allowed.

Will there ever be room for the gymnasts who find their true joy in, you know, winning? Who dare to care when they don’t win? Who refuse to be sweet little bundles of delight? I’ll believe that the NCAA is the widely touted panacea to USA Gymnastics’ toxicity when its culture embraces the greatness of MyKayla Skinner—attitude and all.