Photo by Emilee Chinn | Getty Images

The athletic year has already begun, and Gator gymnasts are officially on campus and gearing up for the new season! We’ve talked a lot about this stellar class in the past as they committed, but let’s put them all together and see what their addition the team looks like in context. This may just be the best class of Florida gymnasts in program history, so let’s meet the freshmen!

Sloane Blakely

Blakely comes to Gainesville from the storied WOGA program in Frisco, Texas with a whole host of titles under her belt. She became the first gymnast to outright win all four events and the all-around at J.O. Nationals earlier this year and finished in first on beam at her first J.O. Nationals in 2016. In between, she competed at the elite level for several years, qualifying to three U.S. national championships and contributing to the USA’s team title at the International Gymnix meet in Canada in 2019. There, she also earned the bronze medal in the all-around and the silver on beam.

As you might guess from her accolades, Blakely has a strong all-around program and could slot in on any event for the Gators. However, beam is where she really shines, with a wide variety of unique skills that will wow the crowd and excellent technique and rhythm that should impress the judges. Here she is at the Nastia Liukin Cup earlier this year, where she earned 5th for this difficult routine full of attack.

Brianna Edwards

A local product, Edwards will join the Gators from Navarre, Fla. and Gulf Coast Gymnastics. While some may think she might fade in the sea of big names joining the team this year, Edwards has the kind of personality that will not be denied. Growing up in an Air Force family, she started gymnastics with a friend in Okinawa in fourth grade and has been dedicated ever since. At Gulf Coast, she progressed through the Junior Olympic levels quickly, reaching Level 9 in 2019 where she became the national vault champion and earned bronze on floor. She advanced to Level 10 last year, qualifying to her first J.O. Nationals on beam and floor and placing second on vault at Florida’s state championship.

Edwards proclaims vault to be “her” event, and her titles support that notion. It’s certainly where she’s most likely to contribute for the Gators, with a floaty full-twisting Yurchenko (FTY) that she lands remarkably and reliably well. It’ll be fierce competition for that lineup, especially without a 10.0 start-value (SV) vault, but if anyone has that fight in them, it’s Edwards. Here’s her FTY from Elevate the Stage, a high-profile J.O. meet where she won the vault title!

Morgan Hurd

Hurd has been the subject of many a fan question throughout the last year, speculating over whether or not she would actually end up in Gainesville, if she would go pro or continue in elite, et cetera ad nauseum. While not on the roster yet, Hurd does plan to join the team in January, following her stint on the Gold Over America Tour with Simone Biles, and will be added to the roster once she is enrolled in classes. She hails from First State Gymnastics in Delaware, where she’s trained elite for the last seven years. A six-time national team member, Hurd has won a whopping five World Championship medals, three World Cup titles, and team titles at both Pacific Rim Championships and the Pan American Games during her nine international assignments representing the U.S. One of those was the 2017 World AA title, making her the only non-Simone Biles AA world champion since 2013.

Though she suffered several injuries in 2020, Hurd was very much on the comeback trail this year, and had she had just a little more time (and the selection process taken past achievements into account, as it has previously), she would likely have been selected for Olympic Trials. Regardless, she’s still an asset to this Gator team and could contribute anywhere. It may be some time before we see her on bars, as her elbows are still recovering from her most recent surgery, but beam and floor will be absolute standouts for her. Here’s her floor routine at the 2018 American Cup, where she won the all-around and a share of every event except vault. Her elegant dance and powerful tumbling are a lethal combination for some top-notch scores in years to come.

Riley McCusker

The Gators have not one, but two world champions joining the team this year. McCusker comes to Gainesville from New Jersey by way of Arizona Sunrays, home of Olympian Jade Carey, who welcomed McCusker in as her training partner after she left an abusive training environment at M.G. Elite. Like Hurd, McCusker is a long-time U.S. national team member and earned a gold medal with Team USA at the 2018 World Championships. She also has three Pan American Games medals and a silver World Cup medal to her name, as well as a national bars title. Unfortunately, earlier this year, she sustained an ankle injury at what was to be a huge comeback meet for her, the GK U.S. Classic. However, she was able to continue to compete bars for the remainder of the meets leading up to Tokyo, taking the national silver medal on the event and qualifying to Olympic Trials, where she trained, but did not compete, beam as well. Despite her progress, she was not named to the team or as a replacement athlete due to a fall on one night of competition.

Though she’s still recovering from her injury, McCusker should make an immediate impact on the Florida bars and beam lineups. Her gorgeous toe point and attention to detail should earn her high marks, particularly in her handstands and dance elements. Further down the line, expect her to contribute on floor as well and to contend for the vault lineup, though without a 10.0 SV, that’s the last lineup she’ll likely join. Check out this fantastic bar set from McCusker’s silver-winning performance at U.S. Championships earlier this summer.

Leanne Wong

Much to the surprise of some fans, Wong became the only member of the incoming Gator Gymnastics class to make the trip to Tokyo for the Olympics, having been selected as a replacement athlete earlier this summer. As the youngest member of this class, Wong did not have as many opportunities to make World Championship teams as some of her classmates, but she still earned many accolades along her road to Tokyo. She started with a J.O. national AA title in 2016 before making the jump to elite, and she was added to the junior elite national team just a year later winning the junior vault title at U.S. Championships. In 2018, she became the junior national champion and represented Team USA at the Junior Pan Am Championships, where she won team gold and an individual medal in every event except floor. In her senior debut at the American Cup, part of the World Cup series, she won gold, defeating world champion Grace McCallum and several other veteran international elites. She went on to win team gold at the Pan Am Games and be named an alternate to the 2019 World Championships team. This year, she earned the national bronze medal on floor and earned a berth to Olympic Trials, where she was then named as an alternate.

Wong, unlike McCusker and Hurd, does not appear to have any injuries to contend with as she transitions to college gymnastics, so it’s quite possibly she’ll be an all-around threat from day one. She doesn’t really have a particularly weak event, but definitely expect her to make waves in the floor lineup, as that has been her strongest event as of late. With better guidance on routine construction from coaches Rowland and Burde and choreography from VAC Miranda, you can bet Wong’s floor routine will pack a massive one-two punch of tumbling and showmanship. Here’s her floor routine from U.S. Championships this year where her elegance was unmatched and her cleanliness paid off.

Shilese Jones?

In case you haven’t heard the rumblings, the Gators may be adding one more stellar freshman to this class in January – Shilese Jones. It’s a bit of a strange situation, as no one is really certain why Jones hasn’t signed an NLI, but she remains publicly and proudly committed to Florida, and the word around the gymternet is that she will be coming to join the team this season. If this is the case, Gator fans are in for a real treat. Jones is yet another U.S. national team member that has had success on both the domestic and international stage, with two Pan Am Championships medals, a second-place finish at Winter Cup earlier this year -the first domestic meet post-COVID shutdown, and bronze on vault at Olympic Trials.

Her eponymous skill on floor is a 1.5-twisting double back, though she hasn’t had an opportunity to get it named, and she’s known for her gorgeous execution on vault and bars as well. If we do get to see her in the orange and blue in 2022, she’ll have a chance at all four lineups, though her strongest events would likely be vault and floor. She’ll be joining Biles and teammate Hurd, among many other star athletes, on the Gold Over America tour this fall, after which she may head to Gainesville. Keep your eyes and ears peeled! We’ll break the news here when her announcement is officially made. In the meantime, check out her stuck DTY from U.S. Championships, which earned her one of the few 15.0+ scores of the weekend.

In total, if Jones is included, this new class of Gator gymnasts boasts five U.S. national team members, six J.O. Nationals appearances, two Nastia Liukin Cup berths, 24 national championship medals, 21 international assignments, and six World medals. Statistically, this may be the most decorated class in program history! If you thought competition for lineup berths was tight last season, just wait – not only does Florida add these talented six, but seniors Megan Skaggs and Alyssa Baumann are both returning for the COVID-eligibility year, so of the routines competed at nationals last year, the Gators lose none.

With all 24 postseason routines returning and all these stellar freshmen joining, Rowland and her staff will have their work cut out for them, now more than ever, as they decide which six on each event will score best for the team. This team still has something to prove, an axe to grind, and with a roster like this, they may be unstoppable.

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