MyKayla Skinner’s vault to Olympic medal podium fueled by prayer, persistence and purpose

If Simone Biles is rightly known as gymnastics’ G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time), then perhaps her U.S. teammate and Latter-day Saint friend MyKayla Skinner is the sport’s “Triple-P” (Purposeful. Persistent. Prayerful.)

Hours after Skinner vaulted, literally, to an unlikely spot on the Olympic medal podium in Tokyo, several people who know her best — including her husband, Jonas Harmer, and her parents, Kym and Cris Skinner — spoke to the Church News.

Elated, they discussed MyKayla’s Aug. 1 silver medal performance in the women’s vault final that immediately became a trending highlight at the ongoing Olympic Games. But they were equally enthused to celebrate her purposeful life. Her persistent pursuit of dreams and beliefs. And her prayerful connection to the Lord and her family, all keeping her grounded and resilient.

“I’m just super, super happy for MyKayla right now,” said an exhausted Jonas Harmer after pulling an all-nighter to watch his wife compete on the opposite end of the globe. “I have probably 50 unread text messages on my phone — and I know MyKayla probably has at least 500.”

Viewing the images of her daughter, smiling and wearing her country’s colors with an Olympic medal around her neck, seems “kind of like a dream,” admitted Kym Skinner.

Mykayla Skinner, of United States, poses for a photo with her silver medal for vault after the artistic gymnastics apparatus finals at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Mykayla Skinner, of United States, poses for a photo with her silver medal for vault after the artistic gymnastics apparatus finals at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Ashley Landis, Associated Press

“I’m just so proud of MyKayla because it’s been such a long, hard journey with many, many disappointments along the way,” she said. “MyKayla just inspires me every day; just her tenacity and what she does. I guess we just feel, as parents, greatly blessed to have been given the opportunity to have her as our daughter.”

Just days ago, Skinner’s competitive gymnastics career appeared over after initially not qualifying for the event finals. But a spot in the vault competition opened up after Biles withdrew. 

The 24-year-old Skinner, who once told the Church News she would have likely served a full-time mission had she not been so involved in elite gymnastics, seized her Olympic moment by finishing second in the vault competition behind Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade. 

“It was one of her best days,” said Harmer. “I’m just so happy with how it all worked out.”

Skinner’s bumpy path to Olympic glory will one day make a great sports flick. 

Almost a decade ago, she failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic trials. Then she was an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in Rio. She was so near to the Olympics, yet so far away. In 2020, she battled COVID-19 and pneumonia, stalling her Olympic preparation. And finally, in Tokyo, where she came “out of retirement” to compete in the Aug. 1 vault finals, ultimately draping a silver medal around her neck.

Adding to the drama is the sting that Skinner experienced her greatest athletic moment thousands of miles away from her family. Spectators are not allowed at the Tokyo Olympics because of pandemic fears, so she has had to rely on technology for long-distance support.

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.
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. Credit: Ashley Landis, Associated Press

But she has prayed, persisted and focused on her purpose.

“While she’s been away, I’ve just talked to her and tried to give her encouragement,” said Harmer. “We always say our prayers over the phone together before she goes to bed.”

Kym and Cris Skinner have also invoked the Lord’s companionship to keep them connected to their daughter throughout the Olympics.

“We have fasted and prayed and asked friends and family members to take part, and I know that’s helped,” said Kym Skinner. “And anytime before MyKayla competes, my husband and I always have a prayer with her.”

During the Olympics, Cris Skinner has continued his long-established practice of texting gospel-themed messages to his daughter. “I send little encouragements to make sure she is continuing with her daily prayers …she always thanks me for that.”

He and his son-in-law, Jonas Harmer, also give MyKayla a priesthood blessing whenever she travels for a gymnastics competition. “It’s usually a blessing of health,” he said with a knowing laugh, “because her muscles are usually sore, and she’s hurting.”

Harmer said his wife’s “never give up” mantra defined her long before she claimed an Olympic medal. Such patience and persistence, he added, is an extension of her gospel testimony and faith. It allows her to push past competition setbacks, injuries, illnesses and, yes, social media trolls. 

Her focus and tenacity — her purpose and persistence — has also made her an example for young Latter-day Saints and beyond. 

“MyKayla has always done what she said she was going to do. … She has taught me that even if the odds are stacked against you, you can still do it,” said her husband.

MyKayla received her patriarchal blessing when she turned 13. Over the past decade, it has been a reliable and blessed source of emotional strength, spiritual guidance and eternal purpose during the peaks and valleys of her gymnastics career.

It helps keep her humbled and grounded.

 “That patriarchal blessing,” said her mother, Kym, “has been a rock in her life.” 

Obviously, MyKayla’s family is thrilled she will return from Japan with a medal in hand. But they are also eager for the world to know their wife, daughter, sister and friend as someone more than simply an elite athlete.

“MyKayla has always been sweet and supportive of others … because she knows what is most important in life,” said Cris Skinner, before adding: “She has a gold medal heart.”

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.
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. Credit: Ashley Landis, Associated Press

Goals greater than Olympic glory

Skinner’s mother-in-law, Elayne Wells Harmer, hosted an overnight watch party at her Utah home to view the Olympic vault final. While still surging from the adrenaline of the day, she reflected on MyKayla’s faith “in God’s plan” that keeps her locked-in on goals greater than Olympic glory. 

Gymnastics success, said Wells Harmer,  “is not what defines MyKayla. She knows she has a mission: she can be an example for millions of girls around the world, Latter-day Saint or not. She puts her [gospel] priorities first.”

Wells Harmer is the daughter of Elder Robert E. Wells, an emeritus General Authority, and the sister of former Miss America Sharlene Wells. She knows, first hand, that being a Latter-day Saint in the public eye can be daunting — especially for a young woman in today’s often caustic social media climate. 

Sharlene Wells, 1985 Miss America
Sharlene Wells, 1985 Miss America Credit: Deseret News archives

The 2020 Olympic gymnast and the 1985 Miss America pageant winner spoke a few days before the vault final to talk about managing success, disappointments and media pressures.

“Sharlene knew that people expected her to be a good example and to share her testimony, and now MyKayla has done that effortlessly,” said Wells Harmer. “Even if MyKayla has a bad day, she can put on a brave face and be an example of graciousness. She really relies upon Heavenly Father for that. 

“Even when MyKayla and Jonas are not together, they pray together. She relies upon prayer.”

Skinner’s father-in-law, David Harmer, said that God has a plan for each of His children.

“I believe that His plan for MyKayla was that she be a missionary through gymnastics. She has a deep-rooted sense that this is [part of] her mission. It is not just a hobby for her. There is a higher motivation for this pursuit.”

David Harmer added that he has long been impressed by his daughter-in-law’s defining characteristics. Those core values that can’t be altered by her Olympic success and fame. “MyKayla is the opposite of a prima donna. … She seeks to help, serve and learn about others. She is good at gratitude.”

Simone Biles, of United States, poses with teammate Mykayla Skinner as they watch the artistic gymnastics men’s all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Tokyo.
Simone Biles, of United States, poses with teammate Mykayla Skinner as they watch the artistic gymnastics men’s all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Tokyo. Credit: Ashley Landis, Associated Press

Vaulting ahead

MyKayla Skinner arrived in Japan a few weeks ago as an All-America college gymnast, a wife and a social media influencer. Her hashtag: #nevergiveup.  Now she will forever be an Olympic medalist. 

But Tokyo promises to be just another chapter in her young story. More chapters will still be written. 

In a few days, she will be reunited with her family in Arizona. Following some Florida R&R with Jonas, she will barnstorm across the country with Biles and her other U.S. teammates on an exhibition tour before returning to her studies at the University of Utah. 

The young couple recently bought a home in Utah and look forward to living a fairly routine Latter-day Saint life. But fans have not seen the last of MyKayla Skinner Harmer.

 “We plan to keep our YouTube channel up,” reported Jonas Harmer, “and we want to do ‘American Ninja Warrior’ together.”

Read more of Church News’ coverage of athletes connected to the Church competing in the Olympics