As the nation reflects on a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to not compare 2020 to 2021, especially in sports. The 2020 season was tragically cut short, and in the case of the Gator gymnastics team, its quest for redemption ended unceremoniously and without resolution. 2019 was riddled with uncharacteristic mistakes for the lady Gators – a trip at the finish line costing them the SEC title, a beam disaster that left them high and dry at regionals, and their first missed national championship meet since 2000. 2020 was supposed to be the comeback year: the year that proved that Florida was still a force to be reckoned with, that they wouldn’t be stopped by a fluke like that ever again. That team was well on its way to proving just that, notching an undefeated regular season, the regular season SEC title, and a final away meet where three Gators notched perfect scores. The stage was set for a mind-blowing postseason, and the numbers supported that sentiment, putting Florida ahead of Oklahoma, LSU, UCLA, and the rest of its competitors in most predictive statistic models.
But then the pandemic stopped everything in its tracks.
Fast forward a year, and the SEC has managed to put together a relatively safe conference-only-competition season with no meet cancellations and only one postponement, and the Gators aren’t just undefeated. They’re ranked number one in the nation as a whole, as well as No. 1 on beam and floor, and they have at least one individual ranked in the top 10 on every event, plus two in the all-around. They clinched the SEC regular season title outright with a win against Alabama in their final regular season meet, and since they’ve beaten every team in the SEC at least once this year to do that, they go into the conference championship this weekend as the significant favorites.
It hasn’t been an easy road to get here, though, so let’s take a walk down memory lane. The Gators came out of the gate strong in January, posting a massive 197.5 to kick off their season at Auburn. Vault now appeared to be their strongest event, with the vault squad dialing in their landings like it was March, not January. There were some misses on bars as the freshmen were getting their competition legs under them, but junior Leah Clapper emerged as a genuine three-eventer, joining the bars and floor lineups after being a beam specialist only for two seasons.
The second meet showed those bars weaknesses may have been more than nerves, though, and that the previous week’s vault showing may have been a fluke. The only gymnast in the first two rotations to go 9.9 or higher was team superstar Trinity Thomas, despite competing in the O-Dome on their home equipment with as much of a home crowd as COVID protocols would allow. Beam and floor also showed some worries – Thomas fell on beam, her first fall in a year, and her first beam fall of her collegiate career, while sophomore Payton Richards fell on floor, crashing her last pass to her hands. Still, Florida defeated rival Georgia in its home opener, which is always a positive takeaway, and junior Nya Reed earned an SEC Specialist of the Week honor for her vault and floor performances.
Week three, fans finally saw shades of what this Gator team was capable of on bars, with all counting routines scoring 9.85 or higher. Vault also showed improvement, as yet a third Gator this season nailed her vault for a career-best mark and earned Specialist of the Week for it: Savannah Schoenherr. Thomas once again had trouble on beam, but fought to keep from falling, so there was definitely progress in the right direction. Floor saw a shakeup as senior Alyssa Baumann was held out of the floor at the last minute, bringing up alternate Halley Taylor. To Taylor’s credit, she was a last-second substitute and still scored 9.7, but she doesn’t have the same polish or presence that Baumann is known for, keeping her scoring potential limited. Reed was the floor squad’s sole 9.9+ score, taking a share of the event title for a 9.925. Senior Megan Skaggs also put up a conference-leading AA total of 39.5, earning her her first Gymnast of the Week nod. The Gators still hadn’t put together a complete meet, but the building blocks had finally all shown up.
The next week brought the Gators’ first pride meet, with a special celebration for Schoenherr, who came out publicly in the 2019 offseason in a touching series of interviews with both the Half In, Half Out podcast and UF Athletics. Sporting rainbow masks, the Gators faced Mizzou and earned a massive 197.85 for their efforts. Vault started a little slow, but bars brought three back-to-back-to back career high marks for Richards, Gabbie Gallentine, and Skaggs. At the time, it was the highest bars total in the nation this season. In fact, it’s still the third-highest to date, behind only California and Denver and tied with Michigan as of the end of regular season. Sydney Johnson-Scharpf had a miss on beam, but this beam squad was resilient – freshman Ellie Lazzari went up next and hit that all-important reset button for a 9.875, getting the rotation back on track. She also made her floor debut for 9.85, and teammates Reed and Thomas closed out the night with a 9.925 and 9.95, respectively. The Gators went into their built-in bye week on a season high score still ranked No. 1, as they had been all season, with a major matchup looming ahead of them after a week of rest – LSU.
After a week off from competition, it was time for the biggest meet of the regular season: No. 1 vs No. 2, Florida at LSU. We got a taste of what SEC Championships and likely the national championships will look like that night, with both teams absolutely on fire, battling to the very last routine to see who would take the W. The Gators trailed after two despite a pretty normal bars rotation and an excellent vault performance. The freshmen struggled a little on bars to start out with, but Schoenherr and Thomas stepped up with a 9.925 and 9.975, respectively, while every counting vault score was 9.875 or better, including another 9.975 from Thomas. The Gators went to floor next, where Baumann returned to the lineup for a 9.9 and Thomas earned her first perfect 10.0 of the season! In the final rotation, the Gators gave it everything they had on beam, and despite a fall from Skaggs, all the counting routines went 9.9 or higher with Lazzari and Thomas both notching 9.95s. It was close, but due to a fall from LSU’s final gymnast on floor, Florida pulled out the win by a mere tenth, earning their highest score of the season thus far with a 198.15 to LSU’s 198.05. Thomas earned another Gymnast of the Week honor for her enormous 39.9 AA score, and Reed earned her third Specialist nod of the season for her 9.925s on vault and floor.
But 2021 wasn’t done throwing the Gators curveballs yet. Just as the team hit its stride at LSU, key athletes Johnson-Scharpf, Schoenherr, Reed, and Thomas were all sidelined due to COVID-19 contact tracing protocols, as well as head coach Jenny Rowland and volunteer assistant Jeremy James Miranda. The decision was made only hours before the event, so the team had to adjust lineups and mindset quickly, knowing how deeply they would have to pull from their roster. Three gymnasts made their season debuts on vault – Taylor with a 9.675, Baumann with a 9.825, and Jazmyn Foberg with a 9.8. On bars, Baumann returned to the event for the first time since 2016, when she injured her elbow while training bars and had to withdraw from Olympic Trials and defer from Florida for a year to heal. In one of the most emotionally charged moments of a season chock-full of them, she scored an enormous 9.925 after nearly 1700 days away from competition on bars. Taylor returned on beam for her second collegiate debut of the night, earning a 9.825, and despite Thomas and Johnson-Scharpf being out, the beam team earned a massive 49.675, the highest beam score in the nation at the time, including a 10.0 from Clapper in the fifth slot. The team closed it out on floor to earn a 197.5 overall for the night, matching the score from the first meet of the season despite missing so many key routines. Baumann went 39.65 to win the all-around title for the night, breaking the program record for the highest Gator AA debut.
A week later, the Gators were back to full strength and hungry to build on what their depleted team had shown the week before. Against Auburn, they soared in the final home meet of the season, honoring seniors Baumann, Foberg, and Skaggs as they each made at least one competitive appearance. Skaggs earned a career high on vault with a 9.925, while junior Schoenherr tied her own career high with a 9.95 to win the event title. On bars, Baumann showed that she’s carved out a place in this lineup with a 9.9, and Thomas was finally rewarded for the perfection she’s shown all season with her first bars 10.0 of the year. On beam, all counting scores were 9.925 or higher, with freshman Lazzari setting herself a new career high of 9.975 and tying teammate Clapper for the event title. The beam squad posted a new program record – an enormous 49.7, which is still the highest beam score to date in the nation this season. To finish out the night, Lazzari posted another career best, this time a 9.9 on floor, and Thomas scored a second perfect 10.0, just the second Gator ever to score multiple perfect 10.0s on the same night after Alex McMurtry. Finally putting together a complete meet where all four events were turned up to 11 on the same night brought this team the nation’s highest score of the 2021 regular season – 198.275 – and led to Florida being ranked No. 1 in the nation overall and on every single event.
Week nine brought the Gators to Tuscaloosa to put the cherry on top of an undefeated season: outright ownership of the SEC regular season title. Competing at powerhouse Alabama is never easy for a Gator – it’s downright hostile sometimes – but this time around, there were more than the usual challenges in store. Thomas went down just moments before the meet began in the touch warmup for bars with an ankle tweak, leaving the team to scramble lineups at the last minute. Understandably, scores on bars were unusually low after Baumann’s fall on her dismount caused Florida to count a 9.7 and a 9.725 from Richards and Gallentine, respectively. On vault, though, the team bounced back, posting three 9.9s from Skaggs, Lazzari, and Reed. The Gators stayed hype on floor, with Reed and Baumann closing out for a 9.95-9.975 one-two punch. Johnson-Scharpf also finally returned to the lineup after a few weeks away after a hip flexor strain and COVID tracing protocols had kept her out. Closing out the meet on beam, the Gators finished strong with every routine scoring 9.85 or better, including Schoenherr in her collegiate beam debut! She anchored for a 9.875, sealing the deal for Florida to win the SEC regular season title outright and keep the undefeated streak alive.
So there you have it – the 2021 regular season blow by blow. The mantra for the Gators this season has been normalcy, controlling the controllables and letting go of everything else, and it’s been put to the test as they’ve had surprise after surprise thrown at them throughout the last ten weeks. They’ve been able to roll with the punches so far, staying on top despite all the adversity, but how will they fare come postseason?
When asked what changes for postseason, head coach Jenny Rowland insisted that very little does. “We’re preparing just like we would for any other competition,” she said last week. This team actually has five athletes that have never experienced any form of postseason – the four freshmen and Richards, the lone sophomore – but only the seniors have ever been to nationals in a team environment. Still, Rowland said, “This team’s mindset is postseason [goals are] no different than our regular season goals. It’s really ‘stay focused on the Orange and Blue,’ control what we can control, just go in and enjoy the moment and make the most of it.”
A lot of these lessons echo what they’ve been through the last several years – trying too hard to match other teams has caused past teams to lose sight of the steps they had to take to get there. There are so many factors out of their control that preparation and flexibility in the figurative sense are key to success: “We have to be ready whenever our name is called… no matter the circumstance,” in the words of junior Schoenherr. She also finally revealed the meaning of the team hashtag this year, #4CTION, encouraging them to act with the 2020 seniors in mind, as the four of them are represented by the 4 in the motto.
And in terms of making the most of it and enjoying the moment, one phrase has been repeated throughout Rowland’s interviews this year: “tomorrow is not promised.” It’s something most know deep down, but that lesson was really brought to the forefront with the cancellation of last season, and Rowland has continued to instill that in her athletes. They are so happy to have a season at all and to be given the chance to compete whenever they can is a gift, and they are recognizing and relishing that more than ever this year. It’s evident in their performance – every hit landing, every new achievement no matter how small is celebrated like the biggest deal.
This newfound appreciation for each new opportunity to compete coupled with the mindset of taking postseason just like any other competition puts Florida in a unique position to seize the moment and achieve the goals it’s been chasing for nearly two years now. The Gators just need to keep these lessons they’ve learned close to heart, take it one step at a time, and remember how far they’ve come. The first step is winning SEC Championships for the first time in five years – they’ve beaten all of these teams already (Auburn twice!), all they have to do is do exactly what they’ve already done. After that? Then we can talk about regionals and nationals.
Until then, make sure you tune in on Saturday at 3:30 and 8pm ET for Caroline’s liveblog of SEC Championships, held in Huntsville, Ala. The Gators compete in the evening session on the SEC Network, so tune in if you can, and keep ChompTalk open on your phone or laptop if you can’t! Make sure you’re following @chomptalk and @mycluttereddesk on Twitter for all your up-to-date Gator Gymnastics news – Caroline tweets a live update thread from coaches and athletes at the team’s press conferences at least once a week.