Photo via Mary Howard / UF Gymnastics

In what many expected to be a fuller day of announcements, Florida signed Payton Richards to a National Letter of Intent yesterday for the 2019-2020 season. A two-time Junior Olympic national beam champion and three-time Region 5 All-Star team member, Richards is expected to immediately make an impact on all four events upon arrival in Gainesville. This will be much appreciated, considering that Alicia Boren‘s graduation after the coming season will leave a massive, 9.9-on-every-event-sized hole in the Gator lineups.

Florida head coach Jenny Rowland sang her praises in yesterday’s announcement. “Not only is she extremely talented, but a super consistent athlete as well. We look forward to seeing her shine on all the events. She’s definitely going to be a contender in the all-around beginning in her freshman year.” Take a look at her beam routine to see how cool she’ll be under pressure in the O-Dome.

Richards was Florida’s only signee yesterday, though it’s worth noting that the signing period is nearly nine months long this time around. Still, most high-profile recruits, especially those who have already verbally committed, tend to sign on Signing Day, which was Wednesday. Notably absent from the festivities today were verbal Gator commits Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker, fresh off of their gold medal run at Worlds as two-fifths of Team USA.

Both gymnasts have made reference to their commitment to Florida on social media recently, including visits to campus in full Gator gear and showing off their chomp skills with current and future Gator gymnasts, including Richards.

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Still, the question must be asked: if they still intend to compete for UF, why didn’t they sign today and then announce that they’ll defer to make a run for the Olympics in Tokyo? This has been the norm in gymnastics in the last few years – both Mykayla Skinner and Kyla Ross signed with their respective schools before announcing their deferment until after the 2016 Olympic cycle.

In general, a gymnast not signing when they’ve already verbally committed is cause for intrigue. This can sometimes mean that she’s being pursued by multiple schools and could be doubting her original commitment. It could also be due to an offer being withdrawn, which can be caused by a number of factors: injury, misconduct, violation of eligibility rules, or simply a crowded class with not enough scholarships to go around. But none of these explanations make sense with Hurd or McCusker’s situations.

This leaves only one other likely explanation: they’re considering turning professional. Under NCAA regulations, if an athlete accepts money based on their sporting achievements or from endorsements, they can lose their eligibility to compete in college. In gymnastics, this presents an especially tricky situation for many successful gymnasts, because the peak of their career is often before college, rather than afterward like many mainstream sports. When a gymnast “goes pro,” they essentially have to give up their college eligibility to be able to financially capitalize on their athletic success. Some very successful gymnasts have been bitten by this rule, with Jordyn Wieber being the most recent high-profile case. Going into the 2012 Olympics, Wieber turned pro, expecting significant individual success to bring in the endorsements that would make turning down an offer at UCLA worth it. Instead, she missed out on the all-around final due to the two-per-country rule and was overshadowed by her teammates in the following media bonanza. She decided to go to UCLA anyway, though she couldn’t compete, and entertained a comeback for a short period of time, though she was forced to train separately from her would-be team. It wasn’t in the cards, though, and then she was forced to retire despite the fact that her professional career never really went anywhere, illustrating all too starkly the dangers of turning pro as a young gymnast.

Still, it’s an attractive option for many top-caliber gymnasts, and Hurd and McCusker would be no exception. Hurd is already a very active social media user with a major following, particularly in the nerd community as a vocal fan of both Harry Potter and Hamilton. And McCusker would be following in the footsteps of former clubmate Laurie Hernandez, who successfully turned pro following her rise to fame in Rio two years ago. It’s likely that if either or both of them is considering this route that much of it will depend on the coming year. If either of them is seriously injured or fails to make next year’s World team, their chances at Tokyo could be significantly damaged, so going pro would be far more of a risk at that point. On the flipside, if they were to make the 2019 Worlds team, continue on their meteoric rise to success, and make really strong cases for Tokyo, going pro could seem incredibly attractive and a much safer bet than it is right now. Unfortunately for now, only time will tell whether we get to see these two elite stars in Gainesville or not. In the meantime, check out some of their highlights from Worlds last month.

Whether she has famous classmates joining her or not, Payton Richards will still be a valuable addition to the Florida squad and merits excitement and anticipation from teammates and fans alike.

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