They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but this many setbacks could not have been anticipated. Florida started postseason very much the favorite after a dominant performance throughout regular season. However, after a loss at SEC Championships and a few injuries at Regionals, that dominance was clouded with doubt. The team felt good going into the meet, sharing with press how well practice had gone the week and a half prior to traveling to Fort Worth, how much fun they were having just doing their gymnastics and focusing on their own game.
When the time came to hit the floor, though, this positive attitude did not shine through. While the Gators qualified to the final, semifinals wasn’t the meet they wanted to have. Bars wasn’t a disaster, not like SECs – the team was able to drop the fall from freshman Gabrielle Gallentine, but still had to count leadoff Payton Richards’s 9.775, leaving them in last place after the first rotation. Richards couldn’t shake it off, though, letting the nerves get the best of her and falling in the first spot on beam. The rest of the lineup hit, allowing them to drop the score, but both Ellie Lazzari and Alyssa Baumann had some nervy moments that were relatively uncharacteristic for them. However, the Gators had moved into second, putting them in a qualifying position after what is normally their strongest event – they were on the road to success.
The team looked stronger on floor, with the only major error being a step out-of-bounds from Richards on her double layout. Trinity Thomas’s return to the all-around was especially key here, as the team didn’t have many more options with Sydney Johnson-Scharpf and Halley Taylor both falling to injury at Regionals. She and assistant coach Adrian Burde retooled her routine so that she only did two passes instead of three, to go easy on her ankles, and though her double layout looked like it stung a little, she nailed the rest of the routine. Nya Reed took the anchor spot for the first time in her career, and while her tumbling was a little bouncy, her performance level was dialed up to 11, keeping the team in qualifying position.
It came down to vault, which didn’t exactly go as planned. Richards was held out of the lineup, so Alyssa Baumann went led off with her Yurchenko full instead. Vault isn’t her best event, but she stuck it, even if she had to squat pretty deeply to hold it. The deep knee bend unfortunately became a trend, with Savannah Schoenherr nearly sitting her Yurchenko 1.5 a few vaults later. It was later reported that Schoenherr had been competing with a pre-stress fracture for most of the season, so this likely did not help matters. Still, Florida finished in second place, qualifying to the national final with an incredibly small margin of 0.075 over California.
In our preview, we highlighted the three factors that should take Florida to the top – leading after beam (and preferably floor), Thomas back in the all-around, and staying loose and confident in their own bubble. At semis, Richards’ fall on beam and the team’s overall demeanor following cast some doubt on the team’s ability to deliver on those factors, but they definitely held on two of the three – the Gators couldn’t stay in their bubble, distracted by uncontrollables and nerves.
Finals, unfortunately, seemed to compound some of those issues. Since they qualified in second position, instead of the anticipated first, the Gators had to start on beam, and once again, Richards fell in the leadoff slot, putting pressure on the rest of the lineup to hit. Unfortunately, delivering on an ask like that two days in a row proved too difficult for even this No. 1 beam squad. Thomas fell on her series as well, though she fought like hell to save it, never actually touching the ground and instead curling her body around the beam in an attempt to save a few tenths. Still, the damage was done – Florida would count a fall on beam.
However, the Gators refused to give up. After all, their 2013 championship title came after counting a fall on beam – crazier things have happened. Floor was as close to lights out as they came all weekend. Only one counting score was below 9.9, and Reed and Thomas both earned 9.95s for their spectacular double layouts, both of which were landed much more confidently than in semifinals. Vault, too, went better than night one, though Schoenherr’s landing again was wonky – another deep squat, but definitely stuck and much better controlled overall.
Finishing on bars, the Gators were going strong – Richards and Lazzari hit normal, capable routines, and senior Megan Skaggs earned a massive 9.9375. But disaster struck when Schoenherr flubbed her half pirouette and came down awkwardly at an angle, hopping off the bars crying. She ended up not being able to finish her routine and limped off the podium, holding her back as though hurt. From previous interviews, we know she has had back injuries previously, the pain from which has kept her out of the floor lineup this year, but there has been no update on her back since Nationals. Despite the fall before her, senior Baumann stepped up and nailed her bars routine – possibly the last routine of her career – for a 9.8875. Thomas closed out for a 9.9, but it was all too little, too late. Florida finished fourth behind Utah, Oklahoma, and first-time champions Michigan. However, the Gators still broke 197 despite counting a fall – that in and of itself tells you how hard they fought the rest of the meet.
So where do the Gator gymnasts go from here? Well, there’s a lot of healing to do. Johnson-Scharpf has had surgery on her Achilles and is on crutches, but she’ll have plenty of time over summer to let that major injury heal, and Schoenherr will also spend time in a boot at the very least to help her foot. Taylor and Thomas both seem to be mostly okay, particularly evidenced by Thomas’s strong performance on vault and floor at finals. Thomas still plans to make a run at Olympic Trials this summer, as far as we know, but her late-season injury may limit her difficulty. And those are just the injuries we know about – gymnasts (and all athletes) often compete with nagging things bothering them throughout their competitive season, so the hope is that the Gators will take the summer to rest and recover. It’s been a hell of a season; they deserve it.
There’s also perhaps some mental healing and recovery to be done as well. The biggest problem at Nationals appeared to be nerves more than anything else, and some gymnasts may blame themselves for what happened. Time spent with the coaching staff and teammates is the best rehab for that kind of injury – the environment this Gator team has enveloped themselves in this season is one where they all have each other’s backs, and even without any further media access to her this season, I can guarantee that’s what coach Rowland is reminding her team now that they’ve returned to Gainesville.
And there’s more gymnastics to get through before next season arrives. The incoming freshmen are ranked the No. 2 incoming class for the 2022 season by College Gym News, and three of the four confirmed signees will almost assuredly be at Olympic Trials, hopefully alongside future teammate Thomas, if not on the team itself. It will be a grueling summer for all the athletes selected, and other than Simone Biles, there are very few likely to make the team that won’t be entering NCAA in the fall.
After the dust from Tokyo settles, Florida will become a new team. Sloane Blakely, Brianna Edwards, Morgan Hurd, Riley McCusker, and Leanne Wong will be joining the team, and at least senior Jazmyn Foberg will be departing. There is still some decision-making to be done for Baumann on whether or not she will take the extra year of eligibility afforded to all seniors this year for COVID reasons, but classmate Skaggs has officially announced she will return to Gainesville for one more year!
I do not envy coach Rowland the job of setting lineups next year – for yet another season, it appears she will have an embarrassment of riches to choose from. But more importantly, this new Gator team in 2022 will have a wealth of experience to draw from. From super senior Skaggs to January-joining freshman Hurd, this team will have such a variety of pressure situations, moments of grit, and nerves of steel in their various backgrounds from which to draw, they should be able to take on anything.
In short, 2021 wasn’t Florida’s year. Peaked too soon, fumbled at the finish line – whatever you want to call it, here we are, fourth overall after spending the entire season in first place. But don’t think for a second that’s going to bog these Gators down. Just wait: 2022 is coming.