She knew she’d taken the tiniest of hops on her dismount off balance beam.
And even though this was just an intrasquad meet, she immediately shook her head and sighed as she walked off the mat.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Thomas said afterward. “I know I can always be better.”
The next day at open practice, Thomas headed straight for beam, determined to get her dismount right.
As she and all her returning teammates know all too well, nothing is guaranteed in college gymnastics. One beam routine can change everything.
The Gators spent much of the 2021 season ranked No. 1, but injuries and fatigue from the COVID 19-impacted season derailed them down the stretch. After once looking all but unstoppable, the team limped its way into the postseason and finished in third place at the SEC championships. The Gators rebounded to advance to the team final at the NCAA championships but a disastrous opening rotation on beam, including two falls, gave them too large of a deficit to overcome. They finished in fourth.
Now, thanks to an NCAA rule allowing an extra year of eligibility for those affected by the pandemic, No. 2-ranked Florida returned nearly every member of the team this season, including Thomas, a senior who led the nation in the all rankings for much of the 2021 season, and 14-time All-Americans and “Super Seniors” Alyssa Baumann and Megan Skaggs.
And joining them is one of the most decorated freshmen classes in recent memory, including 2021 world all-around silver medalist Leanne Wong and 2018 world team gold medalist Riley McCusker. Morgan Hurd, the 2017 world all-around champion, is also on the roster but will not be competing this season due to a torn ACL in her right knee.
“Our goal this year is to win a national championship,” Thomas said. “We’ve come so close and there’s a little bit of a chip on our shoulder now. I can’t wait for Gator Nation, and all of college gymnastics fans, to see this team because we really are something special.”
On Sunday, fans across the country will have a chance to see exactly what Thomas is talking about in an ABC-televised meet against reigning SEC champions and No. 11-ranked Alabama (2:45 p.m. ET).
The depth on the Florida team is almost an embarrassment of riches. Eight gymnasts on the roster boast U.S. national team experience: Thomas, Baumann, Skaggs, Hurd, McCusker, Wong, senior Sydney Johnson-Scharpf and freshman Sloane Blakely.
“I get goose bumps thinking about this team,” said head coach Jenny Rowland, who is in her seventh season on the job. “I pinch myself just about every day and I’m not afraid to say, even to my team, ‘I can’t believe I get to do what I get to do and be around who I get to be around.’ I’m so excited for these women to make a splash in the NCAA world.”
It’s not the most national team members ever on one team, but it’s pretty close. Only the 2004 Georgia squad had more, with nine. Baumann says there’s no way to forget about having such talent around either.
“Every day at practice I’ve been so blown away by some of the skills I’m seeing,” Baumann said. “The other day I looked over and I’m pretty sure Leanne did a double pike Arabian half or something like that and I was just like, ‘What? Where did that come from? I thought we were in college?’ It’s so fun to see, and I’m pretty sure Riley can do every skill in the code of points on bars, so it’s amazing to watch her.”
And the accolades and achievements of the team members are staggering when looked at collectively: seven world championship medals, 10 Pan American medals and 17 U.S. national championship podium appearances. Of the nine gymnasts currently competing at the NCAA level who have previously represented Team USA at the world championships, four of them are Gators.
But there’s one accomplishment that’s notably absent on the Florida roster: an Olympic appearance. As one might guess, that wasn’t by choice.
Olympic year injuries derailed the dreams of Baumann, Thomas, McCusker and Hurd, all of whom had been legitimate contenders to make the 2016 or 2020 squads.
McCusker, one of the premier U.S. gymnasts on bars and beam, was perhaps the most unfortunate. She switched gyms in early 2020 after her longtime coach Maggie Haney was suspended for eight years by USA Gymnastics for verbal and emotional abuse. McCusker had suffered a series of injuries due to overtraining, and was one of the gymnasts to speak up about her experiences with Haney.
McCusker fought her way back to top form, but a fluke ankle injury limited her to just bars at the Olympic trials, and she wasn’t named to the team.
“My heart is shattered into millions of pieces,” McCusker wrote on Instagram shortly after. It’s so hard to have come this far and been so close to my dreams to fall just short.”
Hurd won five world championship medals in 2017 and 2018 and at one point appeared to be a near-lock for the 2020 Olympic team, but injuries and a series of surgeries on her right elbow derailed her in the lead-up to the delayed Games. She failed to qualify for the trials, and wasn’t given an invitation despite her previous results.
“There were so many days after that where I thought, ‘I really don’t want to go to the gym today,'” Hurd said. “It was like, ‘What’s the point?’ I didn’t skip gym at all since I became an elite and I thought I had done everything right. And it still didn’t work out for me.”
Wong came the closest to realizing her Olympic dream by being named an alternate. But in Tokyo, she was forced to quarantine for 14 days after Kara Eaker, a fellow alternate, tested positive for the virus. While the U.S. team was winning the silver medal, she was isolated and alone in a hotel room, trying to figure out how to watch a live stream.
It only adds to the chip on the shoulder that Thomas alluded to. And for these freshmen, college gymnastics is like pressing the restart button.
“It’s happened to a lot of people on this team,” Baumann said about Olympic disappointment. “My whole mindset had been, ‘Olympics, Olympics, Olympics,’ and then it was like, ‘What now?’ But then I got here and I realized how amazing it was here and I really appreciated everything here. I’m so happy to see all of [the freshmen] enjoying gymnastics again. It’s so nice to see them laughing and smiling during practice because I don’t think that was the case before they came here.”
For Hurd, McCusker and Wong, the school feels like a new beginning in the gym — and beyond. Save for a week-long driver’s ed class, Hurd hadn’t taken an in-person class since sixth grade due to the demands of her rigorous schedule. McCusker hadn’t had any non-virtual classmates since eighth grade.
“After Olympic trials, it was really hard for me because I didn’t know who I was outside of gymnastics,” McCusker said. “My entire identity was gymnastics. But coming here and getting to be a student, a teammate and a friend, and having the chance to be social — I’ve joined the student-athlete council as well as a diversity and equality group on campus — it has really helped open up my world and let me figure out who I want to be outside of gymnastics.”
During Florida’s first meet of the season last week, a quad meet in Gainesville against Northern Illinois, Rutgers and Texas Woman’s, the Gators rolled to a dominant victory with a 197.675 final score. It was the highest opening-meet score in program history, and Blakely became the first Florida freshman to capture an all-around title in her debut since Kytra Hunter won in 2012.
This weekend’s meet against Alabama, also in Gainesville, will provide the first real test against a formidable foe. The competition won’t get much easier after that. The Gators will face Georgia and Arkansas, which both entered the season ranked in the top 20, before the month is over. They also will compete against perennial title contenders Oklahoma and LSU. Clashes with more ranked SEC foes await in February.
“This year will probably be the most competitive and have the highest level of talent college gymnastics has ever seen,” Rowland said. “Across the board, it’s just incredible to see who is competing. I don’t think any sport has benefited as much from [the name, image and likeness rule change] and it immediately forever changed the landscape of this sport. No one will ever have to agonize over which path [capitalizing on Olympic fame or competing in college] again, and they can do both.”
Four members of the 2020 Olympic team will be making their NCAA debuts this season: Sunisa Lee (Auburn), Jade Carey (Oregon State), Jordan Chiles (UCLA) and Grace McCallum (Utah). Previously, Olympic medalists had to forgo often lucrative financial opportunities in order to remain NCAA eligible, but that’s no longer the case. While that’s welcomed news for coaches like Rowland, as well as gymnasts and fans, it makes winning at the NCAA level even harder.
Despite the increased strength of competition, Rowland insists her coaching style and philosophy won’t change. While members of her team talk openly about the desire for a national championship and she would of course love to bring the university its fourth overall title and first since 2015, she says that isn’t the benchmark of a successful season.
“Elite is so individual and when you first get here, you might not feel like part of the family right away. I try to be there for [the freshmen] … and let them know they are loved and cared for, and how much we appreciate them.”
For athletes like McCusker and Thomas, it was Rowland’s approach to coaching that lured them to the school in the first place. In addition to a family atmosphere, Rowland and her assistant coaches try to create — the coaching staff even vacation together during their off time — the emphasis is on each gymnasts’ own goals, drive and feelings. Rowland never wants to push too hard.
“The expectations these women put on themselves are so high and higher than anything I would ever want to put on them,” Rowland said. “Just like for myself, my expectations for myself are super high, but I also am a lot older and wiser, and I’ve got to keep reminding them to enjoy the process and to not think so far ahead. They all already have goals and dreams, I just want to help keep that fire strong and that passion there, and really help discover what is their ‘why?,’ what is it that keeps them going.
“We don’t talk about winning, we don’t talk about how we’re going to beat whatever team we’re facing next. We approach every day with, ‘What are we going to do today to be better?'”
On the December morning after the intrasquad, gymnasts were arriving in pairs to the smoky set of their annual video promo shoot for Jumbotron and social media footage. Wearing sparkly leotards, camera-ready makeup and dancing to the music playing in the background — there’s a lot of Drake with the occasional holiday staple mixed in — a man wearing a shirt that reads “Creative Director” instructs each gymnast on what to do when it’s their turn in front of the camera. There are Gator chomps, quick segments of floor routine choreography, flashing lights and an endless amount of behind-the-scenes selfies for their Instagram accounts.
For the veterans on the team, it’s a day to show off their personalities and be the center of attention. For the freshmen, it appears slightly daunting and most appear shy. Thomas, who wears an oversized blinged-out “F” necklace during part of her shoot, remembers all too well what such experiences are like.
“Elite is so individual and when you first get here, you might not feel like part of the family right away,” Thomas said. “Sometimes you need help coming out of your shell. I try to be there for them, just like the sophomores, juniors and seniors were for me when I got here, and let them know they are loved and cared for, and how much we appreciate them. But it takes time.”
The transition can be tough for any freshman coming from elite, but Wong had the added challenge of joining the team late in the fall semester. She came to Gainesville for a few days after returning home from Tokyo for freshmen orientation and then returned home to train in hopes of making the team for worlds. She took classes online. After her two medal-winning performances at worlds, also in Japan, she was back on campus a week later. She’s been at school since November and has mostly adjusted to being part of a team.
“It hasn’t been that big of a change being here,” Wong said. “But the whole team definitely has a range of personalities, so it can get pretty crazy in the gym, and everyone is screaming for each other, and that’s just really different from what I’m used to. I’m still getting used to that.”
Before she discovered she had a torn ACL and would require season-ending surgery, Hurd was immediately surprised at how loud the practices are — with the blaring music and everyone constantly cheering for one another. Hurd joined the team in December after spending the fall performing in Simone Biles’ Gold Over America tour.
And while her absence on the competition floor will be felt, Florida has more than enough gymnasts to fill the void. In fact, with 18 women on the roster (including Hurd) and just six able to compete on each event per meet, it makes practices slightly more competitive.
“When you come into practice and you see people working so hard, you can’t help but want to work to be the best version of yourself too,” McCusker said. “If I see someone just did something amazing on floor, it makes me want to do just as well on beam, or whatever I’m working on. I feel like we push each other in that way.”
During the season, there will likely be weeks in which some gymnasts are only competing on one or two events or might even be scratched completely. After last season’s late injury woes, and with the rise of the contagious omicron variant, the staggering depth is a luxury most are excited to have and know it can only help them achieve their collective goal.
“I’ve done every single competition of my collegiate career, so it will be really nice to have a break some weeks on some events and not feel like I’m letting the team down,” Baumann said. “Not to mention this gives us a chance to put in other people and see how they fit, and that’s going to make our lineups really good down the stretch. I think we could start off every event with 9.9s, and we know that’s what we need to do to win a national championship.
“That’s always the goal, it’s always in the back of our minds and what we want. But this year, it feels more realistic than ever.”