GAINESVILLE — In this corner, standing 5-foot-3 and winner of the 2022 NCAA women’s gymnastics all-around title, Florida’s Trinity Thomas.
And in this corner, checking in at 5-foot and the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Auburn’s Suni Lee.
A pair of pint-sized pixies and giants in their sport will square off during a heavyweight matchup Friday night in a sold-out O’Connell Center.
But the No. 2 Gators and No. 5 Tigers will treat a national television audience to an array of whirling dervishes and gravity-defying daredevils performing feats of strength, acts of courage and eye-popping athleticism (ESPN2, 7:15).
[ NIL is a different game for female athletes. Exhibit A: Gators gymnastics ]
In addition to Thomas and Lee, the meet features three other Gators who have won all-around medals in international competitions — Leanne Wong (silver, 2021 worlds), Kayla DiCello (bronze, 2021 worlds) and Morgan Hurd (gold, 2017 worlds). Auburn fifth-year senior Derrian Gobourne of Sarasota is a NCAA All-America and national champion, winning the vault in 2019.
“You’re going to see some of the best gymnastics in the NCAA,” Thomas said. “It’s insane how much talent we will have in one building this weekend. It’s going to be a lot of fun. The fans are really going to enjoy it.”
A meet featuring such star power and high-level competition can elevate a sport that casual fans are accustomed to watching every four years at the Olympics. For diehards, it is must-see TV.
“Matchups like these, everyone wants to see them,” Thomas said. “It just brings a lot of attention to the sport. It’s pretty cool.”
Gators gymnastics has routinely drawn eyeballs in Gainesville and expanded gymnastics beyond its niche. Florida-Auburn sold out last week and marks the 12th sellout in the Gators’ past 15 meets.
Thomas and her all-star supporting cast have generated even more buzz a season after the Gators lost the national title to Oklahoma by .125 points.
“The margin of error of our last national championship was like less than a half of a step — one person, a half of a step,” head coach Jenny Rowland said. “Really the margin of error is so slim, so slight … it’s crazy.”
The close-call motivated Thomas, 21, to return for a fifth season and push to improve on a historic season. The York, Pa., native recorded the second-highest individual score ever in the NCAA Championship and won the Honda Award as the nation’s top gymnast a year after she suffered two crippling ankle injuries.
“Last season was definitely a dream for me,” she said. “I worked so hard, rehabbing and coming back and trying to get back to where I was. I was worried, so worried about it — and then I had the season of my life.”
Along the way, Thomas made the impossible appear routine.
The vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise each are perilous, requiring skill, focus and fearlessness few can muster, much less master.
“Once you get your skills down, you pretty much get them down,” Thomas said. “But sometimes it’s hard to stand there at the end of the runway. If you really think about it, you’re running towards a stationary object, you have to flip over it and try to stick it on the other side.
“It definitely is mentally tough sport. The best gymnasts are the ones that are able to handle that the best.”
Few handle it as impressively and perfectly Thomas, who finished 2022 with 12 scores of 10. Lee was second nationally with 5 perfect scores.
Thomas vs. Lee, 19, features a level of congeniality lacking in many high-profile head-to-head matchups. The two gymnasts have known each other since they were children competing on U.S. national teams and attending camps.
“We’re really good friends,” Thomas said. “So it’s always fun to compete with her.”
Last season’s matchup helped produce the best regular-season meet of the season.
Florida and Auburn tied with scores of 198.575 on March 4 — a school record for both programs and the nation’s high for 2022.
The Gators (31-1-1 in 2022) would later dispatch of the Tigers during the SEC and NCAA championships. The Gators aim to do it again Friday night and set the tone for another championship run.
Thomas returned for nothing less.
“There’s one thing that we missed out on as a team,” she said. “That was a national championship.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @osgators.
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