Artistic gymnastics can be divided into two worlds: elite and college, but now, more than ever, gymnasts are choosing to do both simultaneously. In this series, Gymnastics Now talks with athletes who are straddling the line between worlds to highlight the nuances of representing college and country.
An unexpected elite return
In the year of 2023, gymnastics fans should have learned not to count anyone out from mounting a comeback, but Trinity Thomas’ return to elite gymnastics still seemed to catch some people off guard.
It’s been four years since Thomas competed elite, but after spending five years as a Florida Gator and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the gymnast recently announced she’s not done with school or gymnastics just yet.
In late June, Thomas revealed plans to remain at Florida to pursue a second master’s degree in entrepreneurship while serving as a student assistant coach for the Gators.
“It is gonna be a little bit different. I am in a different role, and me and my coaches have been talking about it. We’re still figuring things out. We’re in the beginning stages,” Thomas recently told Gymnastics Now. “So just really working together to figure out what’s best for me, what’s best for the team, what’s best for the coaching staff, and working from there.”
Just a few days later, Thomas made another announcement: her eyes are firmly set on the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
It’s a new journey sparked by the perspective she’s gained over the years.
“There were times where I loved it and times where I thought I hated it,” Thomas admitted of her relationship with the sport. “As I grew older, I kind of gained this new perspective [on] gymnastics, just going through the rut, coming out, going through the rut, coming out.
“Sometimes it’s hard when it’s not going well… I found a different way to look at it. I appreciate all the times – the ups and the downs – because I learn, and I’ve learned so much through my entire career, good or bad, that I just appreciate the sport so much more now that I’m older. So really, that’s why.”
Thomas may be on a different journey than other gymnasts featured in this series, but the delicate balance she’s having to master can’t be understated.
Instead of balancing both worlds as an athlete, Thomas will spend the fall finding the balance between school, student coaching, and training while she aims for November’s U.S. national team training camp.
“I’m in classes now, started summer semester, and I’m going to go all the way through, hopefully graduating in the spring,” Thomas explained of her academic plans. “It is a little rushed, so I’m definitely taking a few extra classes so that I can graduate at the end of spring semester. But [it’s] nothing that I haven’t done before, and I’m used to having a lot on my plate.
“I think it’s just going to come down to communicating what I need and taking care of myself and making sure that I’m good… Just to make sure that I’m still on the right track, still good, and can can complete both school, student coaching and gym to the best of my ability.”
The journey back
Thomas might as well be balancing three jobs, but it’s important not to forget the lower leg injury she sustained at regionals that impacted the remainder of her final NCAA season.
The 22-year-old has spent the last couple months rehabbing, so with the November camp in mind, Thomas isn’t rushing into absurdly difficult skills or full sets.
“We’re just starting by working on getting my other skills back,” Thomas said. “And then kind of working and constructing routines from there. So really just taking it one step at a time, working on getting those skills back and then seeing what makes the most sense to go into my routine. And construct my routines from there.”
Skills and routine construction are two major changes when transitioning from NCAA to elite (or vice versa), but neither is the biggest challenge to Thomas’ mindset in her return.
After years of leading the Gators, winning numerous titles and accolades and tying the all-time record for most perfect 10s (28), there’s a shift in expectations that needs to happen in order to achieve her dream of making the Paris team.
“[In] NCAA gym… you’re focusing on those details, trying to make it as perfect as possible. And [in elite] it’s gonna be so hard to wobble and fall and have to be okay with that and know that I’m still doing a good job,” Thomas said of the major difference between college and elite – a focus on perfection versus a focus on difficulty. “It’s okay, and these are bigger skills I haven’t done in a while. It’s gonna take time, and it’s never gonna be perfect, and that’s okay, too. So I think that’s going to be the biggest thing, is just really altering my mindset to be okay with the little mistakes that are gonna happen.”
Thomas isn’t alone at Florida in the first place, but it helps to have fellow Gator and 2020 Olympic team alternate Leanne Wong training elite alongside her while continuing to compete for the school.
“I feel like once you have your teammate and you have this respect for each other and what we’re both capable of, we kind of can give each other corrections and help each other out as is and have been doing that,” Thomas said of Wong. “So I feel like it’s not going to be a huge change.
“Honestly, I absolutely adore Leanne. She’s absolutely incredible. So I’m really excited to be able to work alongside her and help her reach her goals as well.”
Changing the narrative
Thomas is taking a unique journey back to elite, but her decision is also proof of a major shift in women’s gymnastics, with athletes not letting constraints like age and other’s predispositions keeping them from pursuing their goals.
“It’s been such a stigma that’s surrounded elite gymnastics,” Thomas said. “Most times you either go to the Olympics or you go to college – a lot of times you don’t do both. I just love that it’s changing so much, and it’s changed so much.”
Now, a majority of the U.S. Olympic team in 2024 could be actively competing or have competed in college – a normality in men’s gymnastics but a rarity on the women’s side.
“That is so cool to think about because that was unheard of in women’s gymnastics… I am so happy because that is such an inspiration for all the younger girls coming up, whether in the developmental program or in elite, no matter what they want to do, college or elite. It shows you that there’s so many different roads that you can take, and just because [the Olympics] is your goal, there’s no one way to get there.”