If Trinity Thomas can do her steps, Florida could leap to NCAA gymnastics title
The Gators' star has been rehabilitating an injured ankle for weeks, hoping to ready for this weekend's NCAA Championships meet.
- Thomas injured her ankle March 5 warming up for a meet at Alabama
- The Gators are looking for redemption of sorts after failing to make the last NCAA title meet.
- Florida is the No. 1 seed, but it won't be the favorite if Thomas can't isn't her usual self.
- UF's motto is "Turning Obstacles Into Opportunities." Injuries have certainly been an obstacle.
The NCAA Gymnastics Championship trophy will be awarded Saturday afternoon. It might well be decided late Friday morning.
That's when Florida's Trinity Thomas will take some of the most anticipated strides since Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.
OK, it won't be that historic. But when Thomas steps onto the floor at Dickie Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, the gymnastics world will be holding its breath.
"The game plan is to go out there, warm up and see what I can do," Thomas said.
What she can do largely depends on what her right ankle can do.
If it allows Thomas to perform to her capabilities, that would by no means guarantee the top-seeded Gators a national championship. And if Thomas' injured ankle holds her back, it wouldn't mean Florida's title chances are lost.
But who wants to go into any battle without your best weapon?
"She is one of the most well-rounded student-athletes I've ever coached," Jenny Rowland said.
Florida's coach isn't one to single out one performer. After all, Florida's going for the team title and it will take more than Thomas to win it.
But Thomas might be the best gymnast in school history, which is saying something. The junior from York, Pa., is a 10.0 waiting to happen. She's good enough to juggle the training for college competition as well as the elite routines of Olympic competition.
Making the U.S. team for Tokyo is on her to-do list. Also on her list is winning the NCAA all-around title and helping the Gators win the team championship.
Everything was going as planned until March 5. Florida had a meet at Alabama, and Thomas hurt both ankles warming up for the uneven bars. The exact damage wasn't known, but the right one was worse than the left.
Thus began a frustrating recovery plan with one thing in mind — Fort Worth.
The uneven bars competition is generally easier on the ankles than the floor, beam or vault events. Thomas mustered a 9.85 on the bars, but sat out every other event. It was no coincidence the Gators finished third overall.
The same routine applied two weeks ago at the NCAA regional qualifying meet. Only that time, Thomas popped a 10.0 to help the Gators advance to this weekend's championships.
But just as she was going up, teammates Sydney Johnson-Scharpf and Halley Taylor went down. Johnson-Scharpf tore an Achilles tendon and is out till next season. Taylor hurt a calf muscle, and her status for Fort Worth is wait-and-see.
If you've followed UF gymnastics the past couple of years, somehow it all makes unfortunate sense.
"We've been talking about turning obstacles into opportunities," Thomas said.
The team came up with that on Day One when Rowland asked her gymnasts to come up with a mission statement for the season. The coach made a "Turning Obstacles Into Opportunities" sign and hung it on the gym wall.
The obstacles go back to 2019, when the Gators were at the NCAA regional meet in Oregon. It was only the second time in 37 years Florida didn't make the championship meet. That made 2020 a mission of redemption.
The Gators were rolling through an unbeaten season, then COVID-19 hit. The pandemic has remained an obstacle. Trying to maintain that stoic Gymnast Face has been a challenge.
"Emotionally, everything has been more intense," Rowland said. "The highs are higher and the lows are lower."
Which brings us to Friday afternoon. Thomas has stayed in shape, but she hasn't really been able to practice in six weeks. At least not the way she likes.
"That's what makes her unbelievable," Rowland said. "She works and works and pushes and pushes and challenges herself. You don't always get that from people with natural talent."
Florida will compete against Michigan, Cal and Minnesota in the 1 p.m. session. The top two teams advance to Saturday's final.
The plan is for Thomas to compete in every event. She'll lean on years of training, muscle memory and maybe something else.
"I had a horrible realization that it's Trinity Thomas's junior year in NCAA and she hasn't had the opportunity to compete with her team at National Championships yet.... I kindly request that everyone sends their prayers to the NCAA gym gods for her this year."
So read a Trinity Thomas Prayer Post on Reddit. She has a lot of fans she never met.
"I raise my hand to send a healing god!" read one comment.
"That is so sweet," Thomas said. "It definitely feels special to know so many people out there are pulling for me."
Everybody knows what the obstacle is. If a healing god is listening, it could turn into quite an opportunity.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley