How a message from Simone Biles helped MyKayla Skinner win her silver medal

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TOKYO — A week ago, MyKayla Skinner thought her Olympic dreams were done. Despite qualifying fourth in the world on vault, she was third among the Americans and thus ineligible to compete in the individual final here due to a two-gymnast per country rule.

For the 24-year-old who was an alternate at the 2016 Summer Games but never got to compete there, a familiar end had arrived.

“Heartbroken is an understatement,” she wrote on Instagram at the time.

One week later, armed with a second chance … she took second place.

Skinner won silver on vault, behind only Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, who beat the American 15.083 to 14.916. Seojeong Yeo of South Korea took bronze. The gold for Andrade is the first ever for a Brazilian gymnast.

“I was actually going to get on a plane to go home,” Skinner said. “I wasn’t expecting any of this to happen. I was like [my teammates] are going to be fine, they are going to be good.”

Skinner was given a chance to compete in the vault final after Simone Biles, the event’s top qualifier, withdrew citing a lack of mental focus and an inability to compete. Biles initially withdrew from the team event last Tuesday and almost immediately told USA Gymnastics to tell Skinner to stick around, because she might be needed on vault.

“Simone was like, 'Text MyKayla and tell her not to go home in case she has to step in,'” Skinner said. “She was on it like that.”

For Skinner, the week was an emotional roller coaster. She was emotionally down after qualifying.

“It was devastating,” she said. “It took two days before I was like, ‘OK, I’m good, I did my best.’”

By Saturday, she was back.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh I am going to be competing again,’” Skinner said. “To be able to change my mindset has been a little bit difficult.”

It didn’t show in the competition. She went first in the final and delivered a 14.916 combined score.

MyKayla Skinner got a second shot at Olympic glory thanks in part to Simone Biles, and she earned silver on the vault with it. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
MyKayla Skinner got a second shot at Olympic glory thanks in part to Simone Biles, and she earned silver on the vault with it. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

She received a 15.033 (6.0 difficulty, 9.033 execution) on the Cheng and then a 14.800 (5.8 difficulty, 9.000 execution) on the Amanar to take an early lead. Both vaults are the same Biles typically performs.

She then had to wait out the other eight gymnasts to find out her fate.

That included teammate Jade Carey, who with Biles out was the highest qualifying gymnast in the field. However, she stumbled on her run to the vault and was off-kilter coming off the board. She had to bail on her planned attempt and do a simple flip. She was lucky to not wreck upon landing and injure herself

Carey scored just an 11.933 (3.300 difficulty, 8.633 execution). Clearly rattled, she followed that up with a less-than-ideal second attempt where she stepped out on the landing. She left the mat in tears and disappointment, with Skinner waiting to console her.

She finished in last place with a 12.466 combined score. The good news for Carey is she will compete in Monday’s floor finale, where she is the second-highest qualifying entrant after Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari.

Biles and other American teammates sat in the stands cheering Skinner and Carey on, often screaming encouragement.

Considering she had already been eliminated from the Olympics, Skinner’s silver has to go down as one of the least likely medals in the sport’s history.

Despite performing well, last Sunday’s qualifying had been a major disappointment. USA Gymnastics had already decided to leave her out of the team event, despite her strong all-around game.

As such, the Arizona native and University of Utah alum looked to make at least one individual final. Vault was her best chance.

She put up a strong 14.866 — not far off Biles’ event-leading 15.183.

However, when fellow American Jade Carey soared to second (behind Biles), beating Skinner out by 0.200 points, Skinner became victim to the Federation of International Gymnastics' two-gymnast-per-nation rule.

Her Olympics were done.

She was set to pack up and fly home. Then, suddenly, Biles dropped out of the team competition on Tuesday after an awkward vault revealed she lacked the ability to focus in the air. She couldn’t compete.

MyKayla stayed, just in case, and kept training. Biles continued to try to work out while seeking professional mental assistance to cure what gymnasts call a case of “the twisties.”

When Biles withdrew on Saturday from an event she has dominated for nearly a decade, MyKayla was able to step in.

Skinner’s gymnastics career had been bittersweet. She battled injuries and, most recently, a bout of pneumonia after being diagnosed with COVID-19. In 2016, she finished fourth in the U.S. Olympic Trials but was passed over for the team in favor of Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around champion. She was an alternate and never competed in Rio de Janeiro.

She has been outspoken about that disappointment as well as not being put in the team event here — USA Gymnastics selected Grace McCallum instead.

“I am proud of myself for getting here after everything I’ve been through,” Skinner wrote when she thought her Olympics were over. “I would have loved for my scores to count for the team and I would have loved to compete in event finals but I still did some of my best gymnastics here as an Olympian and that’s something no one can take away from me.

“The sport of gymnastics hasn't been kind to me over the years but I am grateful I could be an example to never give up and to chase your dreams no matter what,” she continued. “I am humbled by the experiences I’ve had and hope I can continue to be a light for others fighting their own battles.”

In the end, opportunity would come back to her in an unexpected manner.

First she beamed when she was announced: “Representing the United States of America … MyKayla Skinner.”

And then she came through when she finally got her chance.

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