Florida’s Trinity Thomas balances two very different goals

MyKayla Skinner made headlines last April when she decided to leave Utah after three seasons and make her return to elite competition, but Florida’s Trinity Thomas is doing something perhaps even more elusive — she’s competing in both elite and NCAA at the same time.

With different scoring and vastly different skill requirements, NCAA gymnastics and elite gymnastics can seem like two different sports. In NCAA rules, the “perfect 10” lives on, and perfection is, in fact, the name of the game. Even small errors in a routine can change the outcome of a meet. In contrast, in elite gymnastics, scores add up well beyond 10, and most athletes aim to get as many difficult skills as they can into their routines, to create a buffer zone for any mistakes.

So in order to compete in both worlds, Thomas must have two different sets of routines for each event — one aimed at minimizing deductions, with the other aimed at maximizing difficulty. But somehow, she has pulled it off. As many of her peers delayed college to achieve their Olympic dreams, Thomas couldn’t wait to get to Florida. She doubled up her course load and graduated high school a year early in 2018. And she wasted no time in making her mark.

During her freshman season, Thomas won the SEC vault title, was the conference’s gymnast of the week on three occasions, earned freshman of the year honors and became a five-time All-American. While the Gators were upset in the 2019 regional finals and failed to advance to the NCAA championships by two-tenths of a point, Thomas qualified as an individual and competed on floor and bars.

She then followed up her triumphant debut college season by competing in elite gymnastics over the summer. Her impressive performance at nationals in August — where she wowed fans with her incredible floor routine on the first day of competition — earned her a spot on the national team for the fourth straight year.

She admits it’s difficult and requires almost all of her time and energy, but Thomas says her eyes are set on leading the No. 4-ranked Gators to their fourth national title and making the United States Olympic team for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The Pennsylvania native, who is majoring in applied physiology and kinesiology, spoke with ESPN.com ahead of her sophomore season debut tonight against No. 20-ranked Arkansas (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network+). She discussed her goals for the year, why it’s great to be a Florida Gator and how she navigates her two very different gymnastics worlds.

ESPN.com: How are you feeling heading into the new year?

Thomas: I’m feeling great for this season. I’m so excited. I think the whole team looks absolutely amazing, and we’re just so passionate about gymnastics.

ESPN.com: What surprised you most during your freshman season? Was it what you were expecting from NCAA gymnastics?

Thomas: I was expecting it to be a lot of fun, but in reality, it blew my mind away. It was something I’ve never experienced before. After the season was over, I was like, “I cannot wait for next season. I never want this to stop.” The home meets are incredible, our crowd is just spectacular. The coaches, the energy out there on the floor, it’s just so amazing. I can’t even explain it.

ESPN.com: What is it like being part of a team?

Thomas: It’s so amazing because the team is behind you with everything. When you step up there for your turn, you know that they’ve got your back. They’re there for you, and they’re supporting you. You can just hear them screaming for you when you’re going. It’s just so encouraging and super supportive and super fun.

Thomas has no plans to attend national team camps during NCAA season. Gary McCullough/AP Photo

ESPN.com: What made you choose Florida?

Thomas: It took a long time for me to know where I wanted to go, but when I came on my official visit, there was just something really special about this coaching staff, this school and the team here. I felt so at home. I felt like I fit right in, and I really could not see it any other way. I’m still so excited to be here. I feel blessed to have chosen the right place for me.

ESPN.com: What are your goals this season both for the team and as an individual?

Thomas: Well, I really want to get a 10 this year.

ESPN.com: You were so close last year.

Thomas: So close (Thomas received a 9.975 on multiple occasions on floor and bars during the 2019 season)! But mainly I just want this team to do everything that I know that we’re capable of. I want us to win meet after meet after meet and show everybody, “Hey, we’re back and we’re better than ever.” I want us to go to regionals and it’s just a showstopper. Then hopefully we’ll go to nationals and give it our all and end the season on top.

ESPN.com: Did not making it to the NCAA championships last season as a team make you even hungrier this season? Is it extra motivation for you all?

Thomas: Oh for sure. It was definitely hard and not something we expected to happen or obviously wanted to happen, but I think everything happens for a reason. Because we didn’t make nationals, I think we all got back into the gym and just had a mindset like no other. Now we want to win, and we’re hungrier than ever.

ESPN.com: What was it like going to the NCAA championships as an individual and not as part of a team?

Thomas: It was strange. It would have been great to have my team there. But even though they weren’t there, they were texting me, they were calling me and supporting me from afar. So it was just nice to know that even though we weren’t there as a team, they were still there for me as an individual, too.

ESPN.com: After the NCAA championships, you really didn’t have too much time to get ready for the elite season. What was that transition like?

Thomas: It’s hard but I think my whole heart is in it. I love what I do, and you only get this chance to do all of those kinds of things once. I think that God gave me the ability to do this and that I should use the gift that God gave me. There’s not much time for breaks. I did get some time over Christmas at home with my family, and they came down here for Thanksgiving. I’m really lucky that way. I think I have the best of both worlds. I feel like I kind of get to do it all.

ESPN.com: You’re one of the very few to balance NCAA gymnastics with elite competition. What is the most challenging part about it?

Thomas: The differences between the two are big differences, but I feel like they kind of help each other out. When you’re throwing huge skills in elite gymnastics, it’s hard to be confident. I always struggled with confidence even though people always told me that I looked like I was confident out there. I think college gymnastics has helped me to have more confidence in myself.

ESPN.com: You looked pretty confident at nationals this summer, especially during your floor routine during the first day of competition. What did it feel like for you?

Thomas: It felt so special for me because, well, first of all, I had never competed “The Biles” before. It’s something that I’ve wanted to compete for so long, but it’s just something that was never quite there. So getting up there with the opportunity to compete it finally was just amazing to me. When I landed that first pass on Day 1, I amazed myself.

ESPN.com: Is making the Olympic team the ultimate goal for you?

Thomas: Yes. Definitely.

ESPN.com: In the next several months, what is your plan in terms of competing in both? As a member of the national team, will you be going to camps?

Thomas: So we’ve decided that I’m not going to attend the national team camps during NCAA season. I’m going to focus on the NCAA season, then after season I’m going to go to championships and hopefully make [Olympic] trials. We’ll see what happens.

ESPN.com: So few have even attempted to go this dual path. Have you heard from others, perhaps a year or two behind you, who are now thinking they might try this as well? Would you recommend it to others?

Thomas: Yes. I just hope that the little girls are all looking up to me, knowing that you can do anything — absolutely anything — that you set your mind to. I just want to be a good example for them because there were so many things that people told me I wasn’t going to be able to do, and, unfortunately, I believed them. I feel like my friends and my family and everybody who supports me has helped me believe in myself even more. I just want to be able to help them realize that they can do it, too.

ESPN.com: What are some things people told you that you couldn’t do?

Thomas: A lot of people told me I wasn’t going to make it as an elite gymnast. Others have told me I wasn’t going to make it to the Olympics. They said that I can’t do it at the same time. At first I was like, “Oh, you’re probably right.” But I think as I got older, I realized I can do this.

ESPN.com: Do you feel you’re representing for all of college gymnastics when you’re out there on the elite stage?

Thomas: Oh for sure. Definitely. Some people seem to think that college gymnastics is easy, and it’s not, especially from the elite standpoint. I think that the other girls really appreciate what I’m doing also. They think it’s really cool that I can do both. Some of them think I’m crazy for doing both, which I understand, but I love that I can do this and represent the USA and Florida gymnastics at the same time.

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