Ranked No. 2, Skinner may become Utah's first NCAA all-around champion since Theresa Kulikowski in 1999. Such a four-event achievement would complete one of the best years in school history, after a summer when Skinner barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team (that's a long story) and a season when she was overlooked in the coaches' voting for the Pac-12 Conference's Gymnast of the Year award (a longer story).
'This is my journey' • She's not an ordinary freshman, at age 20. Skinner soon may become known as Utah's all-time top performer, long before her senior year. "My biggest fear for MyKayla is she will get too bored," said Pac-12 Networks analyst Samantha Peszek. "I'm curious to see how she can keep college gymnastics exciting for herself and stay motivated. I can't imagine what she's going to accomplish in the next three years."
Having come from elite-level international gymnastics, in which fans scrutinize everything from her social media accounts to her celebration after a successful vault, Skinner is used to blocking out detractors and performing well. "I've just got to work on myself and do what I want," she said in her usual breathless style of speaking, "because this is my journey, not yours, and I'm going to do what I want to do and excel and be part of this team and just enjoy myself for once."
Ute junior Tiffani Lewis, who was the Pac-12's reigning floor-exercise champion before Skinner arrived on campus, described her teammate's approach: "I'm just going to go out and do the best that I can do and make everybody watch me."
Lewis added, "She's having a lot more fun with it, rather than putting so much pressure on herself."
It makes sense, how a gymnast who in essence became the sixth member of the "Final Five," the American team that dominated the 2016 Olympic meet in Rio de Janeiro, would thrive in college. But that doesn't always happen.
Some athletes "are so beat up by the time they get there, they can't do all-around [competition] anymore," said Lisa Spini, Skinner's coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Arizona.
In addition to the regimen of weekly meets in college, the scoring method flusters some international gymnasts. They're accustomed to a system that rewards high difficulty, unlike the 10-point scoring limit in college that emphasizes execution.
College gymnastics is "almost a different sport," said Peszek, a 2008 Olympian who competed for UCLA.
Some combination of Spini's preparation and the work of Ute co-coaches Megan Marsden and Tom Farden has worked for Skinner. "We were able to pick and choose some of her best skills that were the cleanest," Marsden said.
The collegiate environment, in contrast to cutthroat international competition, is refreshing to Skinner.
"She's loving it," said her mother, Kym. "She's able to go out there and really have fun. … We've just seen big changes in her."
Growing by leaps and bounds • Skinner's life story begins at birth, with doctors having to revive the child upon delivery. "She just came in as a fighter," her mother likes to say, while also labeling her "a very, very, very sweet girl."
The family lived briefly in Draper, starting when Skinner, the youngest of four children in a wide range of ages, was 6. The tales from her early days with the Olympus School of Gymnastics include forgetting her floor routine in a meet and being overwhelmed by the practice schedule, although she won a Level 5 state title. She also attended Ute meets, which would become significant when she was recruited by colleges, after the family moved to Arizona.
Skinner's two older sisters had moved on from gymnastics to other pursuits, and Kym Skinner was tired of being a gym mother. Yet something told her "It was very weird; I can't even explain it," she said to re-enroll her youngest daughter in gymnastics. Before long, coaches encouraged the family to seek advanced training from Spini for the then-11-year-old, and the youngster progressed rapidly. "Having that much coaching, it's crazy how much I could do in that amount of time," Skinner said.
"She made leaps and bounds immediately, just because she was exposed to things," Spini said. "She was really hungry to learn the skills. … She saw what she wanted to be, and she went after it."
Skinner advanced to international competition, which may remain in her future. The 2017 World Championships in Montreal in October and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are in play. She finished fourth in the all-around in the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials, but the selection process for the five-woman team is not that simple. Skinner was named the No. 1 alternate, relegated to training with two other gymnasts in an auxiliary gym in Rio, where a rat once came through the floorboards. The alternates were not needed in the competition and didn't receive gold medals.
Skinner enjoyed her limited part of the Rio experience. Yet after she deferred college enrollment for a year to pursue the Olympics and performed so well in the trials, not being selected to the team was tough for her and her family. "Nobody went out of our house for a week," her mother said.
Simply 'the best' • The Ute coaches visited Skinner in Arizona after the Olympics, encouraging her to start school. She compromised by participating in about a fourth of the U.S. gymnasts' 36-city tour, although she couldn't accept payment as an NCAA student-athlete.
Skinner arrived on campus in October, caught up academically her course load included economics, in addition to bowling and table tennis and bonded with her teammates.
She has blended in well, judging by snapshots of interactions. Advised that an interviewer wanted to ask about Skinner, Lewis jokingly made sure her teammate heard that, saying anything nice would be challenging. In reality, Lewis said, "Gymnastics is a competitive sport. To have someone who's an incoming freshman totally kick butt, you're like, 'Holy crap, I want to be like that.' It inspires and pushes people to be better."
In the voting for Pac-12 postseason awards, the conference coaches chose Oregon State's Kaytianna McMillan over Skinner, who had been named the gymnast of the week a record seven times and went unbeaten against all-around opponents in conference meets.
"MyKayla Skinner is the best gymnast in the Pac-12," Marsden said. "... It's difficult to deny that."
Some gymnastics observers have theories about the balloting. One is that coaches wanted to divide the Gymnast and Freshman of the Year awards, and ended up rewarding McMillan and UCLA's Kyla Ross. On the "GymCastic" podcast, host Jessica O'Beirne said, "You know how coaches are always talking about how character matters and it's not just about the sport, but it's about creating great people? I'm just going to guess this is what that had to with. Because gymnastically, she should have won. But that's clearly not what the coaches were voting on."
Skinner acknowledged some disappointment in the voting, but she has moved on. She performed well in a regional meet as Utah advanced to nationals for a 42nd consecutive year and is looking forward to another big-time stage for herself and her teammates in St. Louis.
"We're going to kill it," she said. "I can feel it."
MyKayla Skinner timeline
1996 • Born Dec. 9 to Kym and Cris Skinner as the youngest of four children.
2002 • Family moves to Draper for a brief stint, competes for the Olympus School of Gymnastics.
2007 • Joins Desert Lights Gymnastics in suburban Phoenix under coach Lisa Spini.
2011-12 • Member of U.S. Junior National Team.
2014 • Wins all-around, vault and team titles in the Pan American Championships; signs with the University of Utah.
2015 • Finishes second on vault and seventh in all-around in the Secret U.S. Classic; defers college enrollment to pursue 2016 Olympics.
2016 • Places fourth in the all-around in the U.S. Olympic Trials, becomes the No. 1 alternate to the five-woman team that wins the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro; enrolls at Utah in October.
2017 • Becomes the NCAA's co-No. 1-ranked vault performer and No. 2 all-arounder, going into the national meet.
Winning it all
Utah's all-around national champions:
Sue Stednitz, 1982
Megan McCunniff, 1983, '84
Missy Marlowe, 1992
Theresa Kulikowski, 1999
Where she ranks
Ute gymnast MyKayla Skinner shares the school record for all-around victories in a season with 11 and ranks third with 40 event titles. As a senior in 2008, Ashley Postell had 11 all-around wins and 47 event titles, while competing in two more regular-season meets than Skinner.
NCAA Gymnastics Championships
Friday-Saturday, St. Louis, Mo.
Afternoon Session, 11 a.m. MDT
(Starting event listed next to team)
• No. 1 Oklahoma (bye before floor)
• No. 4 Utah (vault)
• No. 6 UCLA (bye before bars)
• No. 7 Denver (beam)
• No. 11 Washington (bars)
• No. 12 Oregon State (floor)
Live stream • ESPN3
Evening Session, 6 p.m. MDT
• No. 2 LSU (bye before floor)
• No. 3 Florida (vault)
• No. 5 Michigan (bye before bars)
• No. 8 Alabama (floor)
• No. 9 Georgia (beam)
• No. 10 Nebraska (bars)
TV • ESPNU
Super Six Team Finals, 7 p.m.
Live Stream • ESPN3