The town of Gilbert, Arizona, is quickly becoming synonymous for producing elite Latter-day Saint talent.
Last month, Gilbert-raised Ashley Hatch was named the 2017 National Women’s Soccer League rookie of the year after scoring seven goals in her maiden pro season with the North Carolina Courage.
Meanwhile, Hatch’s fellow Gilbertonian Lindsey Stirling advanced to the finals of “Dancing with the Stars” — adding another notch to the returned missionary’s renowned artistic career.
And in a few weeks, yet another Latter-day Saint from Gilbert is poised to again compete among the best in her sport.
MyKayla Skinner, a University of Utah gymnast and a lifelong member, begins her sophomore season with the Utes in January. She needed just a year to become one of the top all-time performers in the school’s storied Red Rock program.
Still, the veteran international gymnast said she needed that first season at Utah to work on the scoring wrinkles and nuances of college gymnastics. Now she’s ready for the fast-approaching 2018 campaign.
“I’m ready to go,“ she said. ”I’m excited to see where this season takes our team.”
Despite the first-year shift between elite and college competition, Skinner, 20, enjoyed a historic All-American freshman year. She claimed the NCAA floor exercise title, finished second in the national all-around competition and won the Pac-12 championship in three different events (all-around, floor and vault).
She was also named team MVP on a Ute squad that finished fifth in the 2017 NCAA team competition.
Skinner’s success at Utah didn’t surprise gymnastics fans. She arrived on campus last year with an impressive pedigree as a four-year member of the U.S. senior national team and as an alternate on the 2016 USA gold medal Olympic team.
She admits competing at gymnastics’ highest level was sometimes difficult during her teen years. She worked hard and sacrificed much to realize both her athletic and spiritual goals.
“It was a big challenge when I was growing up,” she said. “I remember Wednesday nights were my hardest nights at the gym, so I wasn’t always able to make it to Young Womens. And I’ve never been to girls camp.”
Traveling to gymnastic meets often meant she was away from her home, her family and her friends. And she was usually the only Latter-day Saint in her competitions. But she found strength and assurance through daily prayer and priesthood blessings.
“I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing,” she said.
She attended church whenever possible, “and I always kept my scriptures with me whenever I was on long trips. I’d have my own little lessons.”
She also found she enjoyed sharing her beliefs with her fellow gymnasts and coaches.
The demands of world-class gymnastics offered another benefit that Skinner would later come to appreciate: all of her time was devoted to schoolwork, training, her personal spiritual growth — and lots of sleep.
“Gymnastics has helped me stay away from some of the bad distractions and stay focused on the good things,” she said.
Attending the University of Utah was an easy decision, said Skinner. The school has proven to be an ideal athletic, academic and spiritual fit.
Of course she was drawn to Utah’s respected gymnastics program. “But I also wanted to be around the Church. I wanted to got to institute and I wanted to have the temple close by,” she said.
She also enjoys having a couple of Latter-day Saint teammates — Makenna Merrell-Giles and Kim Tessen — on the Red Rocks squad.
Skinner said her gymnastic skills are still improving. She expects to be a stronger athlete in 2018. And she’s confident the upcoming season will be a memorable one for the Utah Utes.
“I always compete for the team first,” she said. “Whatever [individual] results that follow are just added rewards.”