Sports

MyKayla Skinner Pulled It Off

After an improbable comeback, gymnastics’ most polarizing figure is Tokyo bound.

MyKayla Skinner flipping horizontally through the air, her legs and arms tucked tightly together, in a line with her torso
Skinner competes on the vault during the U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials on Sunday in St Louis. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

MyKayla Skinner, at long last and against considerable odds, is an Olympian. The 24-year-old gymnast—a married rising University of Utah senior, COVID survivor, and notorious thrower of both hard tricks and harder glares—pulled off the near-impossible at this past weekend’s Olympic trials in St. Louis. Just over two years after de-retiring from elite gymnastics, Skinner beat out dozens of exquisitely talented gymnasts, in the deepest field in the deepest program in post-Soviet history, to secure a spot as an event specialist representing the U.S. in Tokyo. I’m not one to gloat, but I so rarely have the opportunity: I called this, people! I said this comeback was the real deal, and it was.

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However, as with everything in the Skinnerverse, this all comes with an asterisk the size of the Olympic torch (which … is still being passed in person?). First, the unequivocally good news for Skinner and her vociferous, passionate supporters: Unlike in 2016, when she was infamously displeased for being chosen as an alternate to the Rio squad, this spot is the real thing. But—and this is good news for Skinner’s equally vociferous, passionate detractors—similar to 2016, she did not make the four-person squad chosen for the team competition and instead, in something of a shock, won the U.S.’s mysterious unclaimed individual spot over (among other impressive talent) bars specialist Riley McCusker and beam queen Kara Eaker. (The U.S.’s other individual spot was claimed nominatively, in a two-year series of international meets, by Jade Carey.)

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For those of you who haven’t spent the past four years trying to make sense of the International Gymnastics Federation’s decision to shrink the team size to four (from five) and add specialist spots: Yes, this is confusing and will remain so for the duration of these games, and no, nobody likes it. And to make matters even more impenetrable, yes, five-person teams are returning in 2024.

As such, I’m not sure it’s worth burdening your pandemic-addled cranium to figure out anything more than this: Four U.S. gymnasts—Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum, and, clearly, Simone Biles—will contend for the team medal in Tokyo, while six U.S. gymnasts (the aforementioned, plus Carey and Skinner) will compete in total, and all six may each contend for the various individual medals: the all-around competition, plus separate final competitions for each women’s apparatus (vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise).

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Unsurprisingly, Biles is the heavy favorite for gold in the all-around, vault, and floor (and possibly beam, depending on both the international field and her nerves), while Lee is a serious contender for gold on bars. But Skinner throws vaults almost as difficult as the GOAT (sometimes, when Biles is pacing herself, the exact same vaults) and could very well find herself on that medal stand as well. However: Carey’s vaulting skills are nearly identical to Skinner’s, and because of the two-gymnasts-per-country rule (aka the “two-per” in gym parlance) in any individual final, only one non-Biles American will make the vault competition. Drama!

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This choice—courtesy of USA Gymnastics’ high-performance team director Tom Forster and his selection committee—to field two specialists on the same event, vying for the sole non-Simone spot, has caused a conflagration of confusion and controversy in the world of gymnastics fandom. It’s the gymternet’s perfect storm: Whether you love Skinner or loathe her, there’s something to write impassioned tweets about.

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Skinner’s fans are confused as to why she was once again snubbed for the team competition, because her high level of vault difficulty would have made her contributions to the team score slightly higher than McCallum’s will. However, McCallum’s floor exercise, while not as difficult as Skinner’s, is typically executed more cleanly and scores higher. (Though she had a pretty big screw-up on the second night of trials. More duh-rama!) McCallum also edged out Skinner for fourth place in the final trials standings, and Forster explained that placing her on the team—despite he and his committee having the explicit and extensive protocol to choose its third and fourth spots based on pretty much any criteria they choose—maintained the “integrity of the process,” a phrase that set the gymternet ablaze in memory of a 2016 trials in which Skinner placed fourth but was relegated to alternate status.

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Speaking of which! The Myk’Haters are positively schadenfroh that she didn’t make the team proper. (Among gym fans, “two-per” is also a verb, meaning “a country’s third-best gymnast not making finals thanks to the two-per-country rule,” and some are psyched that she may get two-per’d out of the vault final and come home hardware-bereft.) However, they’re equally furious that she’s an Olympian at all.

This is because much understandable rancor remains about Skinner’s poor online behavior in 2016, when she retweeted racist sentiments and images about teammate Gabby Douglas (who was placed on the five-person Rio squad despite coming in seventh at trials). This is compounded by rancor about Skinner’s general comportment (which some believe to be unsportswomanlike, emphasis on the woman), and further augmented by rancor about alleged unsafe behavior during the pandemic. Skinner issued a classic sorry if I hurt anyone apology in 2016, and a somewhat more mature one in the recent Peacock docuseries Golden. (Disclosure: I was interviewed for that series as well.) And for what it’s worth, she’s fully vaccinated now, too. While I usually steer clear of both sides–ism, in this case both sides have a point: It’s fair for people who feel marginalized and hurt by Skinner’s behavior to decline to forgive her and to wish she hadn’t made Forster’s cut; it’s also fair if other people find her efforts at contrition have sufficed, and to cheer her on.

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Over and above Skinner’s “comportment” issues, some gymnastics fans also simply don’t care for her because, bluntly put, her gymnastics is spectacular, but it isn’t pretty. She has always been a daredevil first and foremost, famous from her senior debut in 2012 for throwing the most difficult skills she possibly can. Skinner is equally famous for a technique that sometimes borders on chucking (gym parlance for throwing a trick that’s too hard for you in competition) and execution that is notoriously bereft of, say, Biles’ breathtaking air (and body position) or Lee’s beautiful lines. International judges are notorious sticklers for, well, elegance, and American-style grit and bravado generally don’t play as well overseas.

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Still, Skinner’s success—and yes, haters, making any spot on Team USA is unequivocally success!—is highly revealing, and it brings into sharp relief some important truths about what it takes to stand out amid such an embarrassment of talent. In today’s punishingly competitive milieu, Skinner is a case study in the importance of pure searing tenacity and killer instinct, which enable the combination of difficulty and consistency that got her that spot in Tokyo.

Indeed, hers is one of the only successful such comebacks in elite history; many beloved, decorated gymnasts—Nastia Liukin, Laurie Hernandez—have unretired only to find themselves out of their depth. Not MyKayla Skinner. After three years in the less-difficult NCAA (which also limits athletes’ training to 20 hours per week), she dove headlong into a cavern of gymnastics depth as fathomless as Moana’s Realm of the Monsters (“I am still falling!”)—and then she stuck the landing.

Skinner’s remarkable comeback is also a reminder that the best athletes for the job need not always be the most “likable.” Speaking of likable people: Nietzsche once insisted that the world viewed from the inside was the will to power and nothing else. Anyone who doubts that adage need only peruse the litany of younger competitors that MyKayla Skinner’s will to power just decimated.

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