When the United States gymnastics team heads to Tokyo in July for the Summer Olympics, all eyes will undoubtedly be on Simone Biles. Not only is she a household name throughout the world, her legacy as 'Greatest Of All Time' has already been cemented and will more than likely only grow.
But while the whole world will be watching Team USA — expecting another gold medal performance from the favored Americans — there's another team within the team that should be catching people's eyes.
Of the 10 total athletes (six competitors, four replacements) three of them have significant ties to the University of Utah program.
Arguably the greatest Red Rock of all-time MyKayla Skinner — who has faced her share of tribulations leading up to the Summer Games — has finally made the team after serving as a replacement back in 2016. Joining her are incoming freshmen Grace McCallum, one of the four all-around competitors, and Kara Eaker, a replacement similar to what role Skinner served in.
No other college program has more than two athletes tied to the team, let alone having two athletes officially on the team and expected to compete in July.
It's part of a system and culture that current head coach Tom Farden and his predecessor Megan Marsden have implemented that has made the Red Rocks one of the premier programs in the country.
“We wanted to give each other a hug because we worked so hard for this moment,” McCallum said. “It’s really nice to have MyKayla as part of the team. She makes you feel not so homesick. She’s so friendly and caring, and makes sure you feel comfortable. She’s the mom of the group. She makes you feel safe. I’m really excited she’s on the team.”
It was an extremely impressive performance from all three Red Rocks throughout the two-day competition.
McCallum came on extremely strong during Sunday's final day of work, earning the fourth and final roster spot as a member of the four-gymnast Team USA squad. Her 112.564 overall score was good enough to put her in fourth place in the competition, solidifying her spot.
What made McCallum so special throughout the competition was her incredible consistency, especially for somebody who has yet to step on a college campus. She finished in fourth place on the floor while taking fifth place finishes on the balance beam, uneven bars and vault.
“You just have to remember ‘I’ve done a thousand of these routines in the gym,’” McCallum said. “You just have to trust yourself and trust your gymnastics and that you know what you’re doing.”
On Friday night, she posted the second best floor score and then capped that off with the third best uneven bars score on Sunday night. She showcased the consistency needed to make her a legitimate threat in the competition, while also being someone who could potentially medal in floor or uneven bars as an individual.
With McCallum yet to begin her collegiate career, Skinner has taken a different path. One of the best collegiate gymnasts during her time with the Red Rocks, she chose to defer her final season at Utah in hopes of making the 2020 Olympic team — Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, delaying the Olympics an extra calendar year.
But that wasn't the least of Skinner's worries.
First she suffered a serious foot injury where a bone spur consistently aggravated her Achilles tendon made training/competition extremely difficult. Then she was hospitalized with pneumonia after being diagnosed with COVID-19, and her availability for the U.S. Trials was in potential doubt.
But anybody who knows Skinner knows that she's a fighter, and her resiliency was on full display at the trials.
She placed second on vault and seventh on floor, earning an individual spot and completing a dream of hers that began two years ago when she opted out of college.
“This individual spot is different, too, because you’re not competing with the team, but overall I think having the experience from Rio is going to prepare me going into this Olympics,” Skinner said. “Any person on Team USA could go out and win. It’s hard to know who to put on the team, who not to put on, so while I’d love to be on the four-man team, no matter who we put on the team, they’re going to do great.
Eaker finds herself in a very similar role Skinner did five years ago.
Much like McCallum who has yet to begin her college career, Eaker will be traveling to Tokyo as an alternate for the team. Should a gymnast get sick or injured and be unable to compete, she could be called upon to show the world how talented she is.
“It was a nervous, butterfly feeling,” Eaker said about awaiting the results and team nominations. “This means so much to me.”
Eaker showed her prowess on the balance beam, finishing second overall throughout the trials. She also showcased her skillset on floor, finishing sixth overall — all of it leading to a seventh place finish in the all-around.
2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics Gymnastics Schedule
- July 25 – Women's Qualification
- July 27 – Women's Team Final
- July 29 – Women's All-Around Final
- Aug. 1 – Women's Vault & Uneven Bars Final
- Aug. 2 – Women's Floor Exercise Final
- Aug. 3 – Women's Balance Beam Final