MyKayla Skinner's Olympic gymnastics experience did not have to happen this way

MyKayla Skinner's best shot at an individual Olympic medal was on vault -- but both Simone Biles and Jade Carey outscored her in preliminaries, and only two per country can advance to finals. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

TOKYO -- MyKayla Skinner never looked up. She sat on the floor at the Olympic gymnastics qualifying round and distracted herself. She talked to her coach, fixed her tape, but her eyes never wandered down the runway toward the vault.

It was as if she didn't want to witness her hard-fought dreams coming to an end.

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But when her teammate Jade Carey all but flawlessly landed her second vault of the night moments later, Skinner had to look and accept the moment. Carey's triumph marked her exit.

Skinner's Olympics -- something she had famously worked so hard for -- were effectively over after a single day of competition. Carey secured the United States' second spot in the vault final, behind Simone Biles, just as she had on floor. Skinner couldn't hide the tears streaming down her face.

And really, it shouldn't have happened that way at all.

First, there is the hated two-per-country rule. Skinner, 24, had the fourth-highest score of the day -- in the world -- on vault, yet she was the odd woman out. Viktoria Listunova, the 2021 European all-around champion, fell victim to the same outdated policy just hours earlier, barring her from the all-around final. It's fair to say the rule is widely despised -- and has a long history of disqualifying some of the top gymnasts in the sport.

Next, there was a convoluted system of individual qualifiers, and a U.S. selection committee that bafflingly chose two gymnasts who would directly compete with each other for the same medals.

Skinner and Carey were competing as individuals -- something new for the 2020 Games and instantly marred in so much controversy, the option won't even exist in 2024. While part of the U.S. contingent in Tokyo, Skinner and Carey are not members of the team, the one that's likely to win gold on Tuesday in the final. Instead they were there to vie for individual events and the all-around spots only.

Carey locked up her individual spot last year by competing in World Cup competitions. In choosing that path, she became the only American who could truly be in charge of her own destiny -- and not rely on a selection committee to determine her fate -- but that all but excluded her from being named to the four-person team, as it would take a spot away from the U.S. allotment if she were to do that.

It was immediately a hotly debated topic among gymnastics fans on whether it was fair or if it was the right choice for Carey and the U.S. overall. But as Carey is known as a vault and floor specialist, the one thing most seemed to agree on was that the other individual spot would go to someone strong on beam and bars.

Many were shocked when the selection committee instead chose Skinner. Despite her fifth-place finish in the all-around at the Olympic trials, her best events are also vault and floor. The two would be essentially competing for the same places in event finals -- with Biles all but a guarantee for the other spot in both -- decreasing overall medal opportunities for the country and creating a potentially devastating outcome for one gymnast.

That's exactly what happened.

Carey will compete in the vault and floor finals later this week with a chance to win two Olympic medals, and Skinner will head home to Arizona empty-handed. Skinner didn't speak to the media on Sunday night, but she later posted on social media and said she was "heartbroken."

Skinner was an alternate for the 2016 Rio Games and the 2019 world championship team. After watching from the stands as the U.S. team took home the gold in Rio in 2016, Skinner left elite gymnastics and went to college. She won two NCAA titles for Utah, but she never could shake her childhood dream of making the Olympics. She announced she would be returning to elite after her junior season, with her focus set squarely on 2020.

"I kept coming back to this burning desire that I had always felt, and I kept going back to that moment where I was sitting there watching them in Rio," Skinner told ESPN in 2020. "I had the support from everyone at Utah, and my body was still in good shape, so I thought, 'Let's give this a try and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but at least I'll always know I tried.'"

Of course, 2020 turned into 2021 and Skinner herself was hospitalized with COVID-19 and pneumonia over the winter and out of the gym for weeks. But her motivation and drive never wavered.

She was candid in her disappointment about not making the four-woman team after trials but was ecstatic to have a chance to become an Olympian as an individual. She had been frequently posting on her social media platforms as she readied for Japan and once she had arrived. But as the tears fell as the team walked from vault to bars on Sunday, it was clear she had wanted more, and yet again, had come so close to achieving it.

Skinner hit on bars, and again in her final event on beam, and after her dismount, she emotionally waved to the small crowd gathered inside the Ariake Gymnastics Centre as if to say goodbye. She has previously said the Olympics would be the final meet of her career and that she would not be using her fourth year of eligibility at Utah, so the moment appeared to signify the end of her time in the sport.

The rest of the U.S. competitors rushed to hug her. Hours later, Biles posted a picture from their postmeet embrace with a sweet message.

"So proud of this one," Biles, also 24, wrote. "No one understands the hard work and dedication it takes to come back from collegiate gymnastics and make an Olympic team. You did the damn thing! Thanks for reminding us grandmas can do it too. Thanks for keeping gym light-hearted and fun. I love you Ms. Olympian."

So now, unless Skinner finds herself reinvigorated by the latest disappointment and wants to come back yet again for 2024, she'll have to settle for "Ms. Olympian" instead of the "Olympic medalist" title her teammates will likely achieve this week. She recorded the 11th-best score in the all-around on Sunday, and would have also qualified for that 24-woman final if not for the two-country rule. But as the fourth-best American score, her time in Tokyo came to an abrupt end.

Still, she seemed to understand exactly what she had proved in another tweet posted later on Sunday.

"#NeverGiveUp," it said simply.