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U.S. Gymnast MyKayla Skinner Wins Unexpected Silver Medal in Tokyo

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TOKYO — Seven days ago, MyKayla Skinner retired from gymnastics. She changed her flight home: from Aug. 4, the day after the gymnastics events concluded, to July 28, the day after the team final. Five days ago, she changed it back.

And on Sunday, she won a silver medal in the vault.

“I wasn't expecting any of this to happen,” she said afterward.

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How could she have? Skinner had finished fourth in the vault in qualifying rounds, but the rules allow only two gymnasts per country to advance to the finals, and Americans Simone Biles and Jade Carey placed first and second. Skinner had made the Olympics as an individual, not as a member of the four-person team, so when she did not make the finals, she was done.

“It was very devastating,” she said. She gave herself two days to feel crushed, then tried to make peace with her performance.

No one expected Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, to develop the twisties—the gymnastics version of the yips—and become unable to compete safely.

So Skinner was packed. She was staying up late, mourning her career but enjoying her Olympic experience. She was sitting with her coach, Lisa Spini, in the stands, cheering for the team she did not make. Then she saw Biles struggle in warm-ups, then do the same thing during the competition.

Skinner and Spini recognized the twisties immediately, because they’ve been there. “MyKayla has aspects of it,” Spini told Sports Illustrated. Skinner cannot do a full on vault, Spini said. Her body naturally rotates into a double full. She cannot do a double layout with a twist. She can only do a double layout with a double twist. In most cases, they just change the skill to something she feels comfortable completing. Otherwise, they can spend weeks relearning an element.

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Still, this is Biles, so they assumed she would be fine within a day or two. Biles did not share their confidence. On the floor as the team final continued without her, she told her coach Cecile Landi: Make sure MyKayla doesn’t leave. She might have to compete.

Landi texted Spini and Skinner. Still in the stands, they went to United's website and changed their flights back to Aug. 4. The next morning, they headed for the gym, where Skinner nailed both her vaults.

Biles was training, too. But on Saturday, she told Annie Heffernon, vice president of women’s gymnastics at USA Gymnastics, that she could not compete on Sunday. Heffernon told Skinner: She had a second chance.

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She used it to land a Cheng on her first vault attempt and an Amanar on her second. She took a small hop on the Cheng and a shuffle on the Amanar, but the judges gave her a score of 14.916. Because she had gone first, she had to watch and hope as the next seven gymnasts competed. “That was horrible!” she said. But she only watched one gymnast exceed her score, Rebeca Andrade of Brazil. Yeo Seo-jeong of South Korea took bronze.

In some ways, it makes sense that it happened this way. So much of Skinner’s journey has been unconventional. She arrived at Spini’s gym in 2007, fresh off a last-place finish at a regional meet. Five years later, Skinner made the national team but was not invited to Olympic trials. In ’16, she finished fourth at trials but was left off the Olympic team. She moved to collegiate gymnastics, usually a pathway toward retirement for elite performers. But at 22, she decided to try for Tokyo. She made the team as an individual and competed here at 24. Her teammates call her Grandma. She calls herself and Biles the OGs (original gangsters).

Skinner said on Sunday that she was competing “for Simone,” adding that she could not imagine being in Biles’s position.

“I'm like, ‘How are you so strong after all this?’” she said. “I would be in my room, bawling every single night. Just to see how amazing she's dealt with everything, and all the horrible comments and just how people are responding to her, she is definitely one strong cookie, and she's definitely inspired me.”

She said she does not expect anyone else to get the second chance she did. Biles has already withdrawn from the floor exercise final, scheduled for Monday, but she has not announced a decision about Tuesday’s balance beam final. Skinner expects Biles to compete. 

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