Thomas not yet fully healed as No. 1 Gators head to NCAA Regionals

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida gymnast Trinity Thomas performs her routine on the beam against Missouri at Exactech Arena on Jan. 29. Thomas is the nation's only gymnast to earn the maximum of five All-America honors. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun/File]

Coming off a subpar showing at the SEC Championship, the No. 1-ranked Florida gymnastics team has its sights set on a return to the form it displayed all season — and an NCAA Championships berth — when the Gators arrive in Athens, Georgia, for the NCAA Regional second round.

The competition begins tonight for Florida at 7 p.m. in the Stegeman Coliseum, where eight teams are split into two four-team sessions. 

UF is in the day’s second session and will compete against Illinois, Central Michigan and the winner of Thursday’s meet between North Carolina State and Western Michigan, with the top two teams in each session advancing to the regional final Saturday at 7 p.m.

From there, the top two of the four will advance to the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 16-17.

The Gators know a performance similar to the conference championship, where UF finished third, won’t cut it — not with two other 2021 conference champions in the building, and not with the program’s 37th championship invitation in the 39-year history of the event on the line. 

Rather than forget the disappointment in Huntsville, Alabama, for the SEC Championship, the Gators have used it as motivation in the build-up to the postseason. 

Disappointment quickly turned to humility, which has led to a Florida team that’s grateful for the letdown instead of viewing the third-place finish as a blemish on the season. 

“I would say this team has risen to the occasion and really took SECs, used it as something that — you know, things don’t happen to you. They happen for you,” UF coach Jenny Rowland said. “And the experiences that this team went through at SECs, lots of great things come from it and some lessons were learned. I’d say this team responded with an ‘A’ once we returned from Huntsville. It really just was a solid and normal week of practice with the Gators.”

Typical as it may have been, it’s no secret junior Trinity Thomas has yet to be fully cleared with the postseason at stake. Thomas has been dealing with an injury to her ankles that she sustained March 5 against Alabama during her uneven bars warm-up, resulting in her competing in just one rotation in Huntsville, a season-low 9.85 on bars. It wouldn’t be the first time the Gators have competed without her this season — UF did so against the Crimson Tide and still managed a 197.425–197.225 win, and again before that during the regular season in a win over No. 15-ranked Kentucky when Thomas was one of four Gators held out due to COVID-19 protocols. 

Unsurprising as it may be, the Gators are eager to get a healthy Thomas back in the line-up despite being no strangers to success when she’s been absent or limited. 

However, that may not be the case this weekend. 

“Trinity’s doing a little bit better every day,” Rowland said. “At this point, I can’t say exactly what she’ll be competing, if that’s what everybody wants to know. I know that’s the burning question. We do see her in the bar line-up. Other than that, I don’t know. I have confidence in saying that she will be ready come Nationals.” 

Though that’s in two weeks, and the Gators first must qualify for it; without their star, one could say Florida’s in a perilous position at the worst possible moment. 

While it didn’t pay off the last time out, Rowland is confident UF is up for the challenge once again of making sure the recent disappointment is not all for naught. 

“Really that’s when I’ve seen this team rise to the occasion. They are passionate when they know what is the task and what is presented to them,” Rowland said. “The challenges that are accepted on a daily basis and what I’ve seen throughout this entire season, really just goes to show what kind of team this is. I have the utmost confidence this team will rise to the occasion like you’ve seen them do for a good eight weeks in and out.”