PHOENIX — Gilbert gymnast Mykayla Skinner soared through a double backflip with a double twist at the end during her first big competition this year. After planting both feet firmly on the mat, she smiled a little wider than usual.
The 15-year-old athlete already had elite status in the competitive sport, a ranking needed to make the Olympic team. Then, with her clean landing that January day, she mastered a gymnastic move that few others can do.
Completing the "double-double" at the end of her floor routine, she won the competition in Las Vegas. After 10 years of training six days a week, the blond teenager nicknamed "Mikki" moved ahead of many of her competitors for one of only six to eight of the spots on the U.S. team.
"I knew I had done it," Mykayla said.
But it was only January.
The double-double was the first of many hurdles she would need to clear during the year if she was to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
In 2012, Mykayla could complete some of the best performances of her young life — and face her biggest challenge yet.
In February, at her next major competition, the Fiesta Bowl Invitational, Mykayla skillfully landed a rare Amanar off the vault, a move considered almost as difficult as the double-double with only 19 gymnasts ever perfecting it.
In an Amanar, the gymnast must flip off the vault with a twisting backflip that takes her around two and a half times. The move is named after Romanian gymnast Simona Amanar, who performed it at the 2000 Olympic Games. So few people can successfully do the move that there's a prestigious Amanar club, and Mykayla's a member.
Mykayla smiled broadly as she planted her Amanar. After landing two rare and challenging maneuvers, she was well on the way to making the 2012 Olympic team. The success was remarkable for a girl who had come close to never being a gymnast.
When Mykayla was young, her mother, Kym Skinner, had spent much of her time taking Mykayla's three older siblings to training and meets. She said she almost tried to keep her youngest daughter out of gymnastics.
"I was a little worn out pushing Mykayla in a stroller to her siblings' meets, but she really wanted to start gymnastics," she said. "Also, a coach friend of mine saw her do some basic maneuvers and pushed us to get her started."
Soon, it was clear Mykayla had something special.
"It's amazing how focused and strong she is," said Mykayla's father, Cris Skinner, "more so than our other three children who trained as gymnasts."
Her sport is a family commitment — gymnastics seven to eight hours a day, six days a week. Their commitment to their Mormon faith keeps them out of the gym on Sundays, but almost nothing else can interfere. When her family went to Utah for a wedding, she trained at a gym there.
Mykayla's parents haven't had a vacation in more than 10 years but say they have to do everything they can to give her the chance to go to the Olympics.
When her performances seemed to be getting better and better, a new challenge arose.
In 2010, Mykayla started suffering from migraines. Her eyes would go blurry, and the pain could break her focus or keep her sidelined. By this year, she was just starting to learn how to deal with them.
After landing the Amanar, her next competition was later in February at the World Olympics Gymnastics Academy in Dallas.
There, she faced international gymnasts, making the meet more competitive.
And she had a migraine, one of her worst.
She waited for her turn, her eyes blurring, her ears pounding, her head aching. But Mykayla knew she needed to plant another Amanar to prove to a bigger crowd she was on track to be ready for next year's Olympics.
"By that competition, I was getting used to the migraines," said Mykayla, who talks softly and is still shy speaking about her athletic accomplishments. "I knew I had to push through it and not let the migraine take over my performance."
She focused her eyes carefully, steadied her balance and shut out the pounding in her head.
She landed another near perfect Amanar and took second place for the vault competition.
"She just gets on with it," her father said.
Gymnasts who reach "elite" ranking are allowed to compete for a spot in the Olympics.
Mykayla's first elite competition was Texas' American Classic in July. She felt strong but also felt a migraine coming on.
Mykayla willed the headache away and won the competition, one more hurdle cleared for her to make the national Olympic team.
The next test would be the Visa Championships in Minnesota in August, where the Olympic training team would be picked.
Until then, the key was to stay healthy, keep up her rigorous training regimen and be ready to give her best performance. She had never had a major injury, so she trained hard.
Then, she strained her back and had to miss a major competition before the Visa Championships.
She didn't want to stop training or sit out of any competitions. But she was in pain and was having trouble sleeping and jumping.
"We were very concerned and conflicted," said Kym Skinner. "What a choice: Either risk Mykalya getting a serious injury or ruin her chance to go to the 2012 Olympics."
Her parents and coaches talked seriously.
If Mykayla didn't compete at the Visa competition, it was likely her Olympic dream would be pushed back four years.
But days before the competition, she was able to show her coaches and parents that her back had recovered enough for her to compete.
She stepped onto the mat in August, ready to do her best. Still catching up from her injury, she placed 10th, lower than most of her supporters expected.
But in this competition, 10th was high enough. The U.S. team would be taking the top 13 finishers.
After Mykayla found out she made the national team at the Visa Championships, a crowd of little girls stopped and asked her to sign their leotards.
She was met with similar reactions after starting school at Higley High in the fall. She had been home-schooled up until then.
Now, with classes, training and homework, she often doesn't get to bed until midnight. But she jumps out of bed when her alarm sounds at 6 a.m., said her mom.
"In choir at school, some of the girls asked if I was the gymnast who might go to the Olympics and then started to hug me," said Mykayla. "It's nice, but I am not there yet."
Mykayla's most recent hurdle came on Dec. 9, and it was perhaps her easiest. She didn't have to perform a flip or nail a landing. She just had to wake up in the morning. That day, she turned 15.
Now old enough to vie for a spot in the Olympics, she will be elevated to the Olympic training team, with the chance to be picked to go to London.
Mykayla is the only potential Olympic gymnast from Arizona. She hasn't had a migraine or any back problems for months. She does perfect double-doubles and Amanars in practice.
Her longtime coach Lisa Spini of Chandler's Desert Lights Gymnastics thinks Mykayla has a chance to go to London, but she is cautiously optimistic because the team can only take five to compete, plus one alternate. That's a smaller team than the Olympics have allowed in the past.
Marta Karolyi, wife of famed gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, is the U.S. gymnastics coach and ultimately picks the team she will take. She is looking for girls who are well-rounded in their skills, like Mykayla, and can rank in the top for everything from balance bar to vault and freestyle on the mat.
Spini said Mykayla is young and strong and could make the 2016 team if she doesn't go in 2012. Mykayla may not know if she is going to compete for the team until the day before the Olympics start.
Still, she feels like she has a good chance.
"This is what I have been working towards. I have to believe and keep working.
"2011 has been great, but I hope 2012 is my year," she said.
Mykayla is working on a new twisting backflip off the vault that takes her three times around. If she completes it in a competition for the first time, as Simona Amanar did with the two-and-a-half flip, the move will be named "the Skinner."
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com