Clear minds the key for modest No. 1 Gators gymnastics

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida gymnasts Alyssa Baumann performs on the bars against Auburn at Exactech Arena in last month.

One glance at the schedule of the No. 1-ranked Florida gymnastics program wouldn’t indicate a team lacking much of anything as it prepares for Friday’s second round of the NCAA Regional in Athens, Georgia. 

But, following a third-place finish March 20 at the SEC Championships, the Gators say they’ve gained something valuable heading into the decisive stretch: humility. 

In the post-meet locker room gathering, Coach Jenny Rowland could sense it immediately after Florida tallied a 196.975 in Huntsville, Alabama, the team’s lowest score of the season. 

“I can’t lie, the mood wasn’t fabulous. Positive vibes, but this team has experienced (success) all year long,” Rowland said. “You can say a humbling experience.” 

It was understandable from the outset; Florida never led on the night, as junior Trinity Thomas, the top all-around gymnast in Division I, was limited in her return from an ankle injury and could only compete on uneven bars, where she’d score a season-low 9.85 in the event. She was not the only Gator critical to the team’s success who was out either, as fellow junior Sydney Johnson-Scharpf couldn’t make the trip north after being diagnosed with strep throat. 

The low point may have come on bars when the Gators had to count a fall in the rotation for the first time since the 2010 campaign — after a season defined primarily by highs rather than lows, it was an atypical night that wasn’t an accurate representation of the team’s prowess. 

Florida knew it, too, and rather than shy away from the topic, the Gators acknowledged it. 

“This team had a really good discussion and it’s something that we can now look back on and say ‘That meet did not define who this team is,’ but there were definitely some lessons to learn in order to move forward and have the success that they know that they’re capable of having,” Rowland said. “The mood went from pretty low to ‘Hey, we’re on track, and let’s keep going’.” 

Cliche or not, failure is often pinned on a lack of focus — it’s often identified by athletes and coaches alike as the determining factor when all goes wrong. 

That’s not the case here, said Rowland, but rather the opposite. 

“The message that I think really came to fruition was that the Gators just need to be themselves. I would say that the Gators were focusing on too many uncontrollables throughout the competition,” she said, “and bottom line is we just need to focus on what we know we’re capable of doing, and have fun doing it.” 

There’s no blame going around, however. Nothing is being put on the team, which has consistently endured disorder in an era marked by ongoing uncertainty due to the pandemic, which led to the competition moving more than 400 miles north from New Orleans to the Von Braun Center in order to have a more geographically central location for the eight SEC programs competing in championships. That’s not to mention the countless COVID-19 tests, quarantining and multiple other pandemic-related factors that may make it more difficult to stay focused on competing rather than the precariousness of it all. With how close these Gators remain with the four seniors who couldn’t get a shot at glory last season, how could thoughts of the latter — everything coming undone potentially at any point — not creep in during both preparation and performance?

“I’m really close with that class because they were right above me, and I actually committed with that class, so — and we have Amelia (Hundley) here, who has been a rock for this team and especially for me,” senior Alyssa Baumann said. “They talk with us a lot about just taking advantage of every opportunity, because they didn’t get that last year. And this year the team is really trying to do it for them.” 

Florida may be atop the standings, but it isn’t immune to what’s going on outside the competition floor. Nor are they immune to pressure. 

Though there are still several practices left before what’s presumed to be a championship run, it looks as if some normalcy has returned for the Gators. 

“The last couple weeks, it’s been up and down, and up and down. Really, this entire year, it’s taken its toll on every student-athlete in the country. Emotionally, I can see that it’s taken a toll on these student-athletes. They’ve persevered, they’ve had so many trials, so many tribulations,” said Rowland. “But, bottom line, we’ve had so many opportunities to do what we love doing, and I think just looking at the big picture and taking a step back really put things back into perspective for this team. Make the most of what we have today, and I think that kind of got pushed to the side a little bit.”