Looking to honor 2020 seniors, No. 1 Gators gymnastics team set to open season at No. 14 Auburn

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida gymnast Trinity Thomas performs her routine on the bars during a meet against Alabama at the Exactech Arena on Feb. 20, 2020. The Gators defeated Alabama to win the regular season SEC championship.

Following the 2020 campaign’s abrupt cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gators gymnastics program attempted to have an optimistic outlook on the disappointing and unpredictable situation. 

The sport had certainly overcome obstacles before, though none that seemed to bring the entire world to a screeching halt. 

The sidelined Gators had to focus on the bigger picture.

“At the end of the season last year, it was obviously devastating, but we had two options: we could either sit and pout about it, or we could just make the most of it,” UF junior all-around Savannah Schoenherr said. “I’m a firm believer in everything happens for a reason, so just finding the good out of every bad situation is something that I really try to do, and it’s something that our team as a whole did a really good job of this past almost-year now.”

With the 2020 season shelved, and with gyms and weight rooms closed around the country, Florida’s gymnasts were forced into some much-needed rest and recovery while maintaining their form. 

“We all did a really good job of staying in physical shape, rehabbing our bodies while taking the rest we needed, mentally and physically, because those are both very important aspects,” Schoenherr said. “We were optimistic about it all and really just tried to focus on what we could control.”

The controllables included being ready to return to training when the time came to return to the floor, which began months ago and will culminate with the first competition of the 2021 regular season for the top-ranked Gators when they travel to Auburn for an 8 p.m. meet with the No. 14 Tigers on Friday. 

Florida and Oklahoma each received 16 first-place votes in the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association’s 2021 preseason poll, and the Gators narrowly took the No. 1 slot thanks to overall points, 1,167 to 1,152. 

Though it’s an atypical year to be ranked at the top, to say the least. 

The 10-week, eight-match schedule has two open weeks in the middle and at the end of the season to allow for rescheduling in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. Despite shutdowns in the UF football, soccer and men’s basketball programs, the Gators didn’t have to pause the eight-match volleyball season in the fall. 

The success of that model is another reason to think optimistically.

All eight meets this season are against SEC teams ranked inside the top-16 in the WCGA poll, with a home-away match-up scheduled for each opponent. Florida’s repeat opponent is Auburn, so the Tigers will head to Gainesville on Feb. 26 for the home finale. 

Trinity Thomas, the SEC’s Gymnast of the Year, is back for her junior season after becoming the only gymnast in 2020 to score a 10.0 in three different events. 

Thomas, the only U.S. Senior National Team member currently on a 2020 NCAA roster, seemingly couldn’t get much better after compiling numerous UF records as an underclassmen, yet UF coach Jenny Rowland didn’t hesitate when asked if Florida’s star gymnast could improve on what has already been a monumental collegiate career. Rowland backed up the sentiments of her athletes, saying the time off the floor helped. 

“I can say without any doubt, no hesitation whatsoever (she’s improved). It’s crazy, sometimes I can see that this down time really did a lot of athletes some good,” Rowland said. “It took a little bit longer to get back into the swing of things safely, but really, she’s thriving, she’s doing really well, and on top of that training for a summer season in the hopes to compete at the Olympic trials.”

There’s an indescribable, fluctuating mix of emotions surrounding the program, but Rowland and the Gators are certain of one thing: the 2021 season is dedicated to Sierra Alexander, Maegan Chant, Rachel Gowey and Amelia Hundley, the four seniors on the 2020 team who never got one last shot at an NCAA championship. 

And that tribute includes finishing what the Gators started last year — bringing the NCAA Championship back to Gainesville. 

“There’s definitely a sense of unfinished business. I know this team is dedicating this season to our former seniors that were not able to complete their season last year,” Rowland said. “But y also just to pick up where we left off and enjoy competing as a team, working better as a team, and getting better.”