Developing the negatives: Florida gymnasts looking for a photo finish at nationals

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

Along one of the walls of the Ted Crom Gymnastics Studio is a sign that reads, "Develop from the negatives."

In the past, that sign hung in the Florida gymnastics team's practice facility, likely meant learning from mistakes. This season, however, the mantra might've taken a new, more literal meaning.

On the same wall, beneath the sign, are mirrors. And those mirrors are tattooed with photos − lots and lots of photos that feature Florida's gymnasts and coaches celebrating, laughing, traveling, rehabbing and, of course, eating lots of Uncrustable sandwiches.

“We ‘chunked’ our season into weeks this year. And we focused on a word or phrase for each week to help us be mindful of staying a little bit more present in the moment. Each mirror represents one week for the competitive season for the Gators," Florida head coach Jenny Rowland explained. "Each week, a different class had a disposable camera. … We were able to capture in real time what we were trying to accomplish that week."

One would say the second-ranked Gators have been learning from those negatives this season.

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"That’s honestly like one of the coolest things that we’ve ever done," Florida senior Payton Richards said of the season-long project. "I think if you actually go over there and look at each week, you see how much everyone grows and how much fun we’re having. It’s super special."

So far, words and phrases have included "Celebrate the present,"... "Be true to ourselves" and "Normentum" − a word that originated within the program and means "being normal and moving forward with momentum."

Florida Gators gymnast Kayla DiCello performs on the beam during the meet against the Missouri Tigers at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center in Gainesville, FL on Friday, February 10, 2023. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

This week, as the second-ranked Gators prepare to compete for the program's fourth national title in Fort Worth, Texas, there was only one phrase that seemed fitting: "All for the Gators."Florida's NCAA semifinal is scheduled for Thursday at 3 p.m., when the Gators will meet No. 6 LSU, No. 7 California and No. 13 Denver. Should the Gators advance, they'll return to action Saturday with a shot at a national title.

Trinity Thomas' status still in limbo

After suffering a lower-leg injury during her floor exercise in the region semifinal on March 31, Florida fifth-year senior Trinity Thomas, who won the NCAA's all-around title last year, is still listed as day-to-day.

"She's definitely getting better," Rowland said. "It is still a day-to-day basis and we're just doing what we can to protect her to get her healthy and we'll see if she's in a position to go forward."

Fortunately for Florida, the Gators were able to advance into the NCAA finals despite Thomas' absence as they beat out Michigan State and Arizona State to take second-place in the Pittsburgh regional, falling behind No. 7 California 198.075-197.80.

Earlier in the week, Rowland updated Thomas' status and said she had been "living" in treatment and rehab and has been visiting the team's acupuncturists.

UF's depth on full display as Gators adopt "next man up" mentality

Football coaches love to talk about a "next man up" mentality. And Rowland does, too.

"It’s something a football coach instilled in our minds," Rowland said. "Hey, you’ve gotta be ready when your name’s called. So when your name is called, be ready."

Obviously, no one expected Florida to be without Thomas. Fortunately for the Gators, they had (and have) the depth to weather the storm.

With the shifts in the Gators' lineups, junior Chloi Clark and sophomore Bri Edwards were thrown into the lineup for vault, Florida's last rotation, and posted marks of 9.825 and 9.750, respectively, at regional.

"Our last two competitors on vault, Bri and Chloi, have not been consistently in that lineup to feel that pressure at the very end of the meet," Rowland said. "I already told them kudos to them for just being normal and doing what they know how to do."

Richards, Florida's lone senior, was also forced to step into a larger role at regionals − a change she was evidently more than prepared for considering she notched a pair of collegiate bests.

As an all-around competitor in the region final, Richards set her all-around best (39.575), tied her vault best (9.95) and earned a season-high on beam (9.9).

"Payton’s been on that bubble as an alternate all year long on bars and beam and in and out but consistently a player for us on vault and floor," Rowland said. "But she stepped up to the plate and definitely delivered."

All eyes on DiCello, Wong

Whether Thomas is given the green light to compete or not, the Gators will need freshman Kayla DiCello and sophomore Leanne Wong to be sharp in Fort Worth.

And if the entire season leading up to this point is any indication, the young tandem will be ready for the challenge.

In Pittsburgh, Wong posted the top all-around score of 39.775, edging out California's eMjae Frazier, who checked in at 39.750. Meanwhile, DiCello posted the fourth-best all-around score with a 39.675.

DiCello's first season at Florida, which saw her named SEC Freshman of the Year, has exceeded expectations.

“It’s great to see as a freshman, her just accept the challenge and step right in with every other Gator, whether they’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior … you would never know the difference," Rowland said of DiCello. "She loves doing what she’s doing and she’s a ruthless competitor. She loves to compete, she loves that pressure, she loves going at the end of a lineup."

What is it going to come down to?

When talking about Division I college gymnastics, the margin of error is always thin. But when you get to this point in the postseason, the margin of error becomes microscopic.

"At every regional, I think between first and fourth, it was a very slim margin," Rowland said. "It just goes to show the competitiveness of gymnastics across the country just has elevated and you’ve gotta be on your A-game on day two or you’re not going to continue on to Fort Worth, so we’re really grateful for this team to be stepping up and accepting the challenge.”

The Gators didn't breeze their way through the regional.

Due to a pair of out-of-bounds during Florida's trip to the floor, the Gators saw their score get dinged, which gave way for California to take first.

"There’s no perfect meet. No national championship is a perfect meet," Rowland said. "We always say reacting to different situations is super important. Letting them roll and move on."

However, come nationals, it's unlikely the Gators will be able to afford such mistakes. Hopefully for UF, it has developed the negatives.

"Who’s going to make the least amount of mistakes? Period,” said Rowland, when asked what it will come down to.