After more than a decade of hard work and sacrifice, MyKayla Skinner ended her gymnastics career at the Tokyo Olympics — and though she was "heartbroken" not to make the finals, it was her biggest dream come true.
Skinner, who started the sport at age 5 and began her elite career at 11, tells PEOPLE that her Summer Games experience was over "in the blink of an eye," so fast that it was almost like it "didn't even happen."
As she reflects, she describes competing as an individual and not as a member of Team USA as well as the pressures of performing on the biggest world stage during the women's qualifying round, which she calls a "special night" and one she wishes she "could relive it again"
Days after she failed to qualify for a single event and finished the all-around in 10th place, Skinner, 24, says she was "super nervous" about competing in her first Olympics. "I actually kind of thought I wouldn't be as nervous as trials, but the second we got out there, I was like, 'I'm going to throw up. I'm so sick to my stomach right now. This is horrible,' " she recalls.
She had already worked so hard and knew that she had still more work to do.
"Obviously [for] Olympic trials, it was getting to this point and trying to make the team," she says. "Then it's like, 'Okay, well now I'm at the Olympics, and so I really got to do good now.' There's definitely a lot of pressure, but it was just so cool to be out there."
Due to COVID-19 protocols and restrictions, international and domestic spectators were barred from attending any events. Most, if not all, athletes have been competing in eerily empty venues with little to no applause. Skinner, who was the oldest gymnast of the American women, says the lack of fans in the stands "definitely" made a difference in the competition.
"Not having people in the stands was kind of a bummer. We had podium training before, so we kind of got used to [the empty Ariake Gymnastics Centre] a little bit, and we were like, 'Oh, that wasn't bad. It kind of just feels like training,' " Skinner says. "Then, when the meet started, it was kind of like — 'oh, we really need that to get our adrenaline and to get pumped up.' That's what kind of gets us going."
Still, "Simone and I talked about it, and we do really well under pressure," she says.
Then, in a shocking turn of events just hours after Skinner sat down with PEOPLE, Biles withdrew from the team all-around final after a shaky performance in her first apparatus. The two-time Olympian and five-time medalist, 24, later cited mental health concerns for withdrawing and told reporters it's "been really stressful" in Tokyo.
The next afternoon, citing "further medical evaluation," USA Gymnastics said that Biles would withdraw from the all-around final as well and would not be defending her gold from the 2016 Rio Games.
Any decision about the other events, the announcement continued, would be made on a case-by-case basis. The priority was Biles' health: "We wholeheartedly support Simone's decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being," USA Gymnastics said. "Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many."
About the often-blinding spotlight on athletes during the Games, Skinner told PEOPLE on Monday "I feel like I handled the pressure pretty well" but added that "there's a lot of pressure being an Olympic athlete. Just being out there, it was definitely a different kind of pressure."
Heading to Japan, Skinner and Biles were the U.S. veterans with the most international competitions under their belt. "Even though I've gone to Worlds and have all the experience that I've done, it was seriously hard," Skinner says. "I'm like, 'I don't know if I can do my routine right now. Do I even know what I'm doing?' I just felt like I just got to trust it. I got to be calm, but I mean, it's the Olympics. Anybody wants to go out and do their best, so it's definitely a different kind of pressure."
Poignantly, she adds: "Nobody's perfect. I feel like I can handle the pressure pretty well, even though sometimes I feel like I'm psyching myself out a little bit. I got through it, and I feel like I did really good, so pat on the shoulder for that. That was good."
During the team's practice at Jutendo University in Inzai, Chiba, almost 40 miles outside Tokyo, Skinner and Biles gave advice to their younger teammates Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum and Jade Carey.
"Simone and I, we're the OGs of the team. We've kind of always been that role model to them, especially with both of us coming back into the lead scene," Skinner says. "I've had all the experience, so I feel like I know kind of what it takes. We had Martha [Károlyi], so we kind of came from a different era where it was brutal and just super intense."
Károlyi, who retired as the national team coordinator after the 2016 Rio Games where Skinner was an alternate, was known for her controversial coaching methods and allegedly creating a culture of fear and silence along with her husband, Béla. (Tom Forster succeeded Martha Károlyi as national team coordinator.)
"I feel like coming back now, it's obviously harder in a different way. If we had Márta, I don't think I'd be able to do this right now. I'm grateful for that. It's been really cool to see the girls on the team come up to me, ask for questions," Skinner says. "Tom's always asking Simone and I to give advice just during workout, just trying to keep an uplifting, positive attitude and mindset."
"It's really hard when we're gone for three weeks away from home, and this training's brutal," she continues. "We're super stressed, all the anxiety. I think it's really good to just try to remember: If we weren't good enough, we wouldn't be here."
This is Skinner's advice: "Just do what we've been doing in the gym and just always be happy. I feel like you've just got to enjoy this experience."
"It's been really cool to be that role model to them," she says, "and kind of be that mom-grandma figure."
Since she started vlogging on YouTube in February 2020, Skinner has been taking gymnastics fans behind the scenes of her competitions and preparations. In Tokyo, she recorded the team's Olympic experience.
"A lot of people don't get to see the behind-the-scenes of what we go through and what it's like. We aren't perfect people," she says. "Everyone on social media is like, 'They're so perfect, they have their life together, gymnastics looks so easy.' We work our butts off to get to where we are. It's blood, sweat, and tears every single day. You can't be perfect."
"You can do one little thing wrong — no matter how many times you train it. Like on the beam, you go a little bit crooked or take off wrong and you're off," Skinner says. "I think it's okay to not be perfect. I mean, look at me this year."
In December, Skinner tested positive for COVID and fought pneumonia, which forced her to pause Olympic training. "After everything I've been through, even going to classics and championships, I had mistakes. We were kind of all over the place trying to figure ourselves out again, but I feel like sometimes, having to fail is what makes us stronger," she says.
After the preliminary competition in Tokyo, Skinner was able to re-watch her performance on the four apparatuses. She was surprised by what she saw.
"I was like, 'Wow, I'm actually pretty good.' I mean, when you're up there, it's kind of hard to tell because you can't see it, but you can feel it," she says.
Though her elite gymnastics career is now over, she will travel the U.S. with Biles on the latter's Gold Across America tour.
"I'm not officially retired yet, but this was my last competition ever," Skinner says. "It was cool that I got to end it at the Olympic Games, right? That's pretty exciting. I'll be doing Simone's tour and then after that, I'm pretty much done."
And then? At 24, she says she's "so excited for the next chapter of my life," including finishing her last year of school at the University of Utah, moving into her new home and possibly starting a family with her husband, Jonas Harmer.
"I am doing communications in journalism to do sports broadcasting. I'd love to go into that kind of stuff," she says, "but I also want to enjoy life for a little bit and vacation, just enjoy it for once."
"I feel like I haven't really gotten to do that. I feel like anytime I have a vacation, I'm stressed, or 'I got to go back in the gym,' like I'm going to miss so much time that I need to be working on improving. For me, I'm just really excited to have a life," she says.
As Skinner transitions into the next stage of her career, her Olympic memories will stay with her forever. She hopes she will be able to tell her children about the "cool" experience of competing at the Tokyo Games, no matter what the result ended up being.
"I'm so excited. I hope I can be that mom — that cool mom," she says as a bright smile breaks across her face. "Just to be able to compete at the Olympic Games and to hit four events, do the best that I did was something that will last for me forever. It'll just be cool to be able to tell my kids one day that I went to the Olympics."
She's looking forward to all of it.
"There's obviously a lot of opportunities that I think are going to be opening up now, which is super cool," she says. "We'll just kind of see where life takes me."
To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.