Catching up with Latter-day Saint medalist MyKayla Skinner on anniversary of her ‘pure silver’ Olympics

Prayer, family support and the words of her patriarchal blessing helped former University of Utah athlete during her unlikely journey to the Olympic medal podium

AMERICAN FORK, Utah — The two vaults MyKayla Skinner performed at last year’s Olympic finals in Tokyo were over in seconds — but their combined result proved life-defining for the Latter-day Saint gymnast.

Prior to the Aug. 1, 2021, Olympics women’s vault finals, Skinner had long been classified as an elite international athlete and a “medal hopeful.” 

But when her second-place finish was announced, she graduated to rarified company that holds no expiration date: Olympic medalist.

Church News readers have long followed the gymnastics career of the Arizona-born, lifelong Church member — stretching back to her teenage days as a Team USA alternate on the 2016 Olympics squad, then as a decorated All-American collegiate at the University of Utah and, finally, as an Olympic medalist who became one of the biggest stars of the Tokyo Summer Games.

Mykayla Skinner of the United States, poses after winning the silver medal for the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) | AP

Her Latter-day Saint fans also appreciate that Skinner is as comfortable talking about her religious beliefs as she is breaking down her performances on the balance beam or uneven bars.

Days prior to the first anniversary of her 2021 medal-winning performance, Skinner spoke to the Church News, marveling over time’s speedy passage. 

“It’s all gone by pretty fast … sometimes I wonder where the time has gone,” she said. “It’s definitely been crazy — but a good crazy. I’ve been busy doing so many things.”

Skinner’s Tokyo story is well-known: 

Just days before the Aug. 1, 2021, women’s vault finals, her competitive gymnastics career appeared over after initially not qualifying for the apparatus final. But when her friend and American teammate Simone Biles withdrew from the vault competition, a spot opened up.

Skinner seized her unexpected Olympic moment, finishing second in the vault behind Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade. She returned to her homeland with a silver Olympic medal hanging from her neck — and a fortified testimony of personal preparation, prayer, faith and family.

World-class gymnasts practice their routines over and over and over again to eliminate uncertainties. For over a decade, Skinner had been preparing for that magical day when an Olympic medal was on the line.

Mykayla Skinner of the United States, performs on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis) | AP

But nothing Skinner or her coaches trained for in the gym could have fully prepared her for Tokyo’s many Olympic surprises. So she found the additional strength she needed through prayer and the inspired words of her patriarchal blessing — along with the long-distance encouragement of her husband, Jonas Harmer, and her family and many hometown friends, fans and fellow Church members. 

“Even though they weren’t there in person, I could still feel them in my heart. I knew that they were proud.”

Now a year removed from the Games, Jonas Harmer can still recall his own battle with nerves while watching his wife compete in a distant Olympics from his laptop and television screens.

“It was tough but fun,“ he said. “I remember the watch parties with my co-workers and staying up until 4 or 5 in the morning to watch the vault finals.”

Taking her burdens to the Lord

Few Latter-day Saints will claim an Olympic medal after navigating a maze of setbacks and complications. But all will experience setbacks and uncertainties. After all hope of winning a medal seemed lost, Skinner took her burdens to the Lord.

“I remember getting down on my knees and praying,” she said. “I just kept having a feeling that [my Olympics] was not over. … It was as if the Spirit was telling me, ‘This isn’t over.’”

Her husband and her parents, Cris and Kym Skinner, were unable to attend the Olympics in Tokyo because of the ongoing pandemic. But on repeated phone calls and Zoom meetings stretching across two continents and multiple time zones, they encouraged her to remain in Japan even though it appeared her competition was behind her.

The rest of the story is, well, Olympic history.

“But even now, a year later, when I sit back and think about it, it still doesn’t seem real,” said Skinner.

The past 12 months have sharpened Skinner’s appreciation for “growth opportunities” that double as difficulties and trials. “I needed those challenges and struggles to become a better person. I’m a stronger person now — and hopefully I can now walk out of any situation or trial throughout my life.”

Even prior to unprecedented events of the Tokyo Summer Games, Skinner’s path to her Olympic medal was rarely straight. It was never simple. She counts prayer and the guidance of her patriarchal blessing as priceless spiritual friends. They have helped her persevere and find joy in a journey that continues to this day.

“My gymnastics journey is my mission — especially to help the youth of the Church,” she said.

Her gospel testimony, she added, allows her to face whatever the day brings. 

“Life is not easy, but knowing what I know as a Church member helps me know that it’s all going to work out in the end, some way or another.”

Mykayla Skinner and her husband, Jonas Harmer, at their home in American Fork, Utah, on Friday, July 29, 2022. A photo of the couple’s temple marriage hangs on the wall. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Harmer laughs recalling the whirlwind of activities that came in the aftermath of his wife winning an Olympic medal. Immediately after reuniting in the United States, the couple embarked on a wild, exhausting schedule to meet media demands and other promotional events.

Following a welcome breather in Utah, Skinner joined Biles and several other female gymnasts at the end of 2021 for a multiweek gymnastics exhibition tour through dozens of U.S. cities.

“Then we both started back in school, so it was like we’ve never had a chance to really enjoy the moment,” said Harmer. “It’s all been nonstop. The year has passed in the blink of an eye.”

Skinner and her 6-foot-7-inch husband also put their athletic skills to the test during recent appearances on “American Ninja Warrior” — including a couples competition.

On to the next 'rotation'

Now a 25-year-old “retiree,” Skinner is still adjusting to life as a public figure and Olympic medalist. But in her day-to-day interactions with family and friends, she still feels like the same Arizona girl they watched grow up.

“It has been fun to enjoy life and not have to stress about gymnastics anymore, especially after ending my career on such a good note.”

It is humbling, she added, when Latter-day Saints approach her and thank her for representing her Church and her country.

 “One of the great things about being a member of the Church is knowing that there is so much more to my life than just gymnastics,” she said. “I know that that can be hard for a lot of [retired] athletes, especially in the gym world. … But the blessings that we have — like being sealed in the temple for all eternity — give me a bigger picture.”

Skinner is, in her words “super competitive,” so she misses the thrill of matching her skills against other talented gymnasts. “But other than that, I’ve just been enjoying life.”

Harmer and Skinner both have a semester of college to finish. They are looking forward to starting a family. “I definitely want to have kids,” she said.

For now, Skinner is uncertain how involved she will remain in gymnastics. She has considered coaching, but time will tell. Television work is more likely. She is studying sports broadcasting and, no surprise, she’s comfortable in front of the camera talking all things gymnastics.

She also hopes to connect more with Latter-day Saint youth, write a book about her story and perhaps utilize the Harmer-Skinner YouTube channel and their other social media platforms to discuss Church-related items, such as the purpose of temples.

“I’d just like to help the younger generation know that life is going to be hard,” she said, “but you can get through it through Christ.”

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