By Blythe Lawrence
STUTTGART — The mic drop that capped Simone Biles’s world-conquering all-around performance at this week’s World Gymnastics Championships was actually the brainchild of team alternate MyKayla Skinner.
“So MyKayla and I saw a video about it last night, and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you should do it,'” Biles said after putting the finishing touches on her record-extending fifth World all-around title. “And I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And I was like, ‘All right, if it’s a good routine I’ll do it.'”
Behind every successful team, there’s an alternate story. The replacement athlete at a World Championships plays a number of indispensable roles. Besides being ready to step for any team member in due to unforeseen circumstances, he or she is the de facto purveyor of hugs, high fives, encouraging words, and, as the occasion arises, choreography suggestions.
Still, the vast majority of the time when the lights go down, they remain on the sidelines, cheering and doing everything they can to support the team — except what they do best. They smile because it’s great to be at Worlds, but all things considered, it’s a tough life.
“It’s hard,” said Allan Bower, who was named the men’s team alternate for the third year in a row in 2019. “It’s hard to find motivation to go and do routines during podium training,” he said. “I try to be as prepared as I could just in case anything happens, because obviously I want to represent Team USA. And the guys deserve it to know that there’s a backup just in case anything goes wrong, I’m there.”
Skinner, a team alternate at the 2015 World Championships and 2016 Olympic Games, was named women’s team alternate this year as well. Her path to Stuttgart passed through the University of Utah, where she was a star NCAA competitor for three years before taking a sabbatical to come back and make a push for the 2020 Olympic team.
Less than six months later, a top-eight finish at the U.S. Championships and a fourth-place at the World team selection camp catapulted her back onto the world stage with Team USA. Although designated the alternate just two days before the women’s team competition began, Skinner knows being the alternate represents a large step toward her ultimate goal.
“Going back to five months ago, I never would have thought that I’d have this opportunity to be here, where I am right now,”she said. “Even though I’m the alternate, I think it’s still good to go out and have this experience again, going back into the elite world. So all in all it was just so fun being out there with the girls and I loved every minute of it.”
The alternate’s contribution is more than being an extra body ready to compete. Yul Moldauer refers to Bower, his good friend and training partner at the University of Oklahoma, as “the brother of the team.”
“I was standing there cheering the entire time, just trying to make them feel comfortable, make them feel at home,” Bower said. “A lot of times I’m not really sure what to say if something goes wrong, but I’m trying to help them get their spirits back up and get their minds back on track.”
At 22, Skinner, along with Biles, has contributed a wise perspective that has steadied the younger members of the squad. “MyKayla brought a level of maturity and fun to the atmosphere because she comes from college,” said Jess Graba, who coaches 16-year-old World rookie Sunisa Lee. “I think she brought a little of the fun and the carefree stuff, and that takes the edge off for some of the kids.”
“Being out there with girls was something really special for me. I got to cheer them on and feel the connection,” Skinner added. “It was nice to support them, let them know that they’re loved, and they’re going to go out there and kill it. It was so different and so alive and so fun.”
An experience worthy of a mic drop? Maybe not, but an experience all the same.
“I never want to be in this position again,” Bower said. “I’m going to go back and train harder than I have before and remember every moment here, because it’s not fun being the alternate. I love these guys to death and they deserve it, but it just sucks being in this position.”