Sports

MyKayla Skinner Will Not Be Ignored

The former NCAA villain is back in elite gymnastics, and she means business.

MyKayla Skinner doing a midair split.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Scott Utterback/Courier Journal/USA Today/Reuters.

The most exciting moment of this past weekend’s GK U.S. Classic in Louisville, Kentucky—the final qualifying meet for the upcoming U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Missouri—did not take place on the competition floor. It was during a practice session, when this happened: Simone Biles threw out a casual, rafter-high triple double, an element that packs three twists into two flips and is widely known as a very difficult men’s skill.

Biles didn’t become the first woman ever to throw that triple double in competition—yet. She was just testing out this impossible feat on a competition surface, but she nonetheless went on to casually win the Classic by more than 2 points while competing at about two-thirds of her meet-ready difficulty, her last name emblazoned on the back of her leotard in rhinestones like the queen she is.

The Classic also presented gymnastics fans with a staggering amount of depth in the current U.S. women’s field; witnessing display after display of immense talent brought to mind Dwayne Johnson’s “I am still falling!” bit in Moana. There were the assured, difficult routines of silver and bronze medalists Riley McCusker and Grace McCallum, who have emerged as the most formidable non-Simones of a formidable U.S. squad. There was balance beam prodigy Kara Eaker, who scored a near-unbelievable 15.4 on her signature event (beating Biles, who herself hit a great routine, by five-tenths of a point).

And then there was the second-most exciting moment of the Classic: the elite return of MyKayla Skinner.

A few months ago, I introduced my friends at Slate to this gymnast’s unique situation: Chosen as an alternate to the 2016 gold-medalist “Final Five” squad, Skinner was salty, and she wanted to make sure the rest of the world knew it. She (and quite a few fans) felt that she worked at a greater level of difficulty than returning Olympian Gabby Douglas. In her anger, Skinner tweeted some very bad tweets and retweeted some even worse ones (racist and homophobic sentiments that were, and remain, inexcusable), and in doing so made an enemy of large swaths of the gymternet, as the internet of gym fans is known. She then retired from elite competition and enrolled at the University of Utah, where her fierce competitiveness (or, depending on whom you asked, bad attitude) made her a favorite with the squad’s arena-packing fan base. But that persona failed to endear her to many other NCAA fans—or, for that matter, NCAA judges, who rarely rewarded her choices to pack routines with elite-level difficulty. At the time I wrote that piece, there was already speculation afoot that, fed up with the limitations of college gym and with some unfinished business to attend to, Skinner might put college on hold and attempt to train for Tokyo—and the speculators were correct.

Back in April, Skinner finally announced that she was deferring her senior year at “the U” to resume elite training at Desert Lights, her home gym in Arizona. The goal: Tokyo 2020, the real squad this time. And so, after a scant two months back in the elite gym—NCAA gymnasts are capped at 20 hours’ weekly training; elites have no such limitations and often train upward of 40—reacquainting herself with skills that are either not allowed in college or too risky for the perfect 10 system, the 22-year-old took the floor at the Classic ready to compete in three out of four events. The idea was to qualify to the U.S. Championships (gymnasts need a two-event total score of 27.00 at a qualifying competition to do so) and then, perhaps, the national team.

And the first thing she did was take to the vault runway and bust out an extremely respectable Amanar—the über-difficult two-and-a-half-twisting vault that a good number of Americans used to compete (earning the nickname “the United States of Amanar”), but which has since all but fallen off the roster, save for Biles (who is training a triple anyway). In fact, the U.S. currently only has two really strong vaulters: Biles and Jade Carey (who herself is having trouble with the Amanar and didn’t compete it at the Classic). And though the United States remains the heavy favorite for team gold in Tokyo, fielding a four-woman squad where at least two do the rather pedestrian (by elite standards) double-twisting Yurchenko will be frankly suboptimal. Skinner’s Amanar scored a very high 14.9, after two months of training. (That tied Carey for the second-highest vault score of the meet, behind—you guessed it—Simone Biles.) A year from now, that Amanar will be a medal contender. Sorry, haters: The MyKayla Skinner comeback is real.

That’s not to say the MyK’haters weren’t afforded opportunity for schadenfreude at the Classic: Skinner bonked on her fourth and final floor pass on live television (and was subject to the histrionics of perennially excitable NBC commentator Tim Daggett). NCAA gymnasts compete three passes, and her elite conditioning has simply not had time to return—and so she scored a disappointing 12.9, which put her in 14th place in the event.

And then there was her form. Her other three floor tumbling passes, though quite difficult, were awash in the sort of belabored breaks that are the hallmark of someone pushing the visible limits of their available difficulty. Skinner’s opening pass, the Moors—a double-twisting double layout—was a jumbled mess of legs. Her second pass, a front tuck into a full-twisting double, flung into its twist too early and forced her to “cowboy,” or spread her legs in the tuck. Her third—a massively gutsy tucked double double, which most gymnasts can’t even use as an opener—was a bit short. And then her fourth petered out entirely. Yes, OK, it was far from perfect.

But still. Skinner is unequivocally back, and she means it. Her personality and past may still rankle gym nerds, but no matter: Her vault and beam scores were more than enough to qualify for nationals, where she will also debut her elite bar routine. She may not have a triple double, and she may not qualify for the 2019 Worlds team after five months back in the gym—but I’d be shocked if USA Gymnastics’ high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster saw that Amanar and didn’t take notice.

Most elites who biffed an entire pass on floor would barely break a total score of 11, but Skinner almost cleared a 13 with a massive error; she walked off that mat after eight weeks in the elite gym with a sky-high 5.6 difficulty score, tied for the fourth-highest of the meet, against gymnasts who competed all their skills. Everybody in gymnastics should be taking this comeback seriously. The conditioning will come. The form will improve. MyKayla Skinner has made herself impossible for USA Gymnastics to ignore.