Olympics 2021: MyKayla Skinner's gymnastics career ends at Tokyo Olympics with the unlikeliest of silver medals

Mykayla Skinner, 24, capped a long and often agonizing journey to the Tokyo Olympics with a silver medal on Sunday. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

TOKYO -- When MyKayla Skinner walked off the competition floor at the Olympics one week ago, she believed her gymnastics career was over.

There were tears, an emotional wave and a farewell Instagram post hours later. The 24-year-old said she was "heartbroken" but ready for her next chapter. Skinner was preparing for her flight home to Arizona on Tuesday night when she got a text that asked her to change her plans.

Simone Biles had just withdrawn from the team final and was concerned about her ability to compete in the event finals. Before the night was even over, Biles insisted someone reach out to Skinner immediately.

So Skinner stayed. She didn't think she would actually have the chance to participate in the vault final, but she tried her best to train and get back into the competitive mindset despite the uncertainty. On Saturday, Biles told her she was going to opt out and Skinner would need to replace her.

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Now, one week after her tearful goodbye to the sport, Skinner is an Olympic silver medalist.

In a career filled with the improbable, this might just be the unlikeliest and most fitting ending of all.

"This has seriously been such an honor to be able to step in for Simone and be able to win this medal," Skinner, 24, said Sunday night. "To be able to do this for myself, and [I'm] so grateful for the opportunities to come back after being an alternate in 2016 and having [had] COVID and pneumonia and all the setbacks I have had."

Skinner's long and often agonizing path to the Olympics has been well documented. She narrowly missed out on making the 2016 Olympic team. She watched the "Final Five" claim the gold medal as an alternate from the stands. She was so close to what she had always wanted, but so far.

After returning home from Rio, she set her sights on NCAA and won two national titles for Utah. But she couldn't shake her childhood dream. After three years at the college level, she announced her return to elite with her sights firmly set on Tokyo.

The year she planned to train turned into two because of the pandemic. Then she was hospitalized with pneumonia and the coronavirus in early 2021 and was out of the gym for a month.

During Olympic trials in June, she achieved her dream of becoming an Olympian, but with an asterisk. Skinner would be a member of the Tokyo-bound team, but not the team. As one of the U.S. team's two individual competitors, her scores wouldn't count toward the team total and she wouldn't be included in the team final.

She knew she had one day to make her Olympic experience count. Skinner hit on all four events during the preliminaries and finished in fourth place on vault. But as the third-highest-ranking American, behind Biles and Jade Carey, she was ineligible to compete due to the two-per-country rule. As the four members of the team were thought to be a lock for the gold medal, and Carey, the other individual, had qualified for two event finals, it looked as if Skinner would be the only American woman to go home empty-handed. She was devastated but proud of what she had achieved.

"I still did some of my best gymnastics here as an Olympian, and that's something no one can take away from me," Skinner wrote on Instagram. "The sport of gymnastics hasn't been kind to me over the years but I'm grateful I could be an example to never give up and to chase your dreams no matter what... This is closing the book on my gymnastics career, and my only regrets were things outside my control. So no regrets."

Skinner said she had made peace with what had happened. She was excited to go home and see her husband and start her life beyond gymnastics. But she knew Biles was struggling going into the team final and she wasn't completely surprised to get the text.

She thought Biles would get past the "twisties" she was experiencing in a few days. But Skinner practiced side-by-side with Biles, a longtime friend and the team's other self-described "grandma," and Biles encouraged her to be prepared and to stay focused.

On Saturday, Skinner sat down with Biles and Annie Heffernon, USAG's vice president of women's gymnastics, who told her the news: Biles still didn't feel like she was ready and would be withdrawing. Skinner said the moment was "kind of crazy," but Biles was quick to lend her support.

"She was like, 'I want you to make podium, I want you to medal,'" Skinner said.

Skinner was the first gymnast to vault on Sunday. With Biles' "Come on, MyK!" yells reverberating through the largely empty arena, Skinner earned a 15.033 -- better than either of her scores in qualifying -- on her opening Cheng.

She needed a slight hop on the landing of her second vault, an Amanar, but notched a 14.800 for a 14.916 average. She went back to her chair to watch the remaining seven gymnasts, but never sat down. In fact, she hardly moved. She stared intently at each gymnast as each score flashed on the screen. She didn't even put her warm-up tracksuit back on until the competition was over.

Rebeca Andrade, the eventual champion, bumped her out of first place soon after, but Skinner held on for the silver medal. When the number for Lilia Akhaimova, the final gymnast, was announced, Skinner looked to be in disbelief as she hugged her coach, Lisa Spini -- while Biles jumped up and down from her seat. Skinner needed Spini to help put on her warm-up pants.

As Skinner walked to the podium to collect the Olympic medal she never expected to have, Biles continued to cheer. Skinner blew kisses her way. Biles later wrote to Skinner on Instagram, "I'm so freaking proud of you."

Before and after the competition, Skinner had said she wanted to win one for her sidelined teammate -- and she did just that.

"With Simone, we're the OGs ["Olympic Grandmas"] of the team, and to just have her support, and her having to step out of finals, and her just pushing me along every single day to help me to place on that podium has been so cool," Skinner said. "This has seriously been so humbling and I'm so grateful to be here."

With an Olympic medal to her name, Skinner said her gymnastics career is officially over. And this time, she's achieved everything she ever wanted.

"This seriously means so much," Skinner said with the medal around her neck. "After having COVID, I seriously didn't know I would be able to go back into the gym, so just being able to overcome that and to keep pushing for my goals and dreams to make it to the Olympics has been such an honor. And now to even be go in for [the] vault [final] and to win a silver medal, that's icing on the cake for me. Seriously, so unreal."