Ex-NCAA gymnastics champion Trinity Thomas eyes Paris Olympics with gas still in the tank

FILE - Florida's Trinity Thomas reacts after competing on the uneven bars during an NCAA gymnastics meet against Georgia on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla. Thomas, the 2022 NCAA champion while competing for Florida, says she is going to make a bid for the 2024 U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough, File) (Gary Mccullough, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Trinity Thomas spent five years at Florida chasing — and often catching — gymnastics perfection.

Now the 22-year-old has her eyes set on something she knows from personal experience can be far more elusive: a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.

The 2022 NCAA champion is planning a return to elite gymnastics this fall, a decision she didn't rush into. Maybe because the relentlessly pragmatic Thomas never rushes into anything.

She knows she could have stepped away from the sport after drilling the final vault of her collegiate career at the national championships in April, the one that gave her a record-tying 28 perfect 10s. She was putting the finishing touches on her master's degree in health education and behavior and entering a time where — historically anyway — most gymnasts move on to the next chapter of their lives.

Only Thomas couldn't retire. Not just yet. The calf injury that limited her during NCAAs began to feel better. The thoughts of what might have been in 2021 if not for ankle issues that prevented her from making a real run at the Tokyo Olympics gnawed at her.

Perhaps most importantly, the competitive fire that's been burning deep inside for as long as she can remember showed no signs of fading, offering Thomas unshakeable proof that she wasn't done.

“It’s one more year of gymnastics," Thomas said Wednesday. “I love gymnastics. It can be as big or as small as I want it to be. I still have fuel in the tank, so let’s see how much.”

Thomas knows it will take plenty if she wants to earn a spot on the five-woman team that will look to reclaim the top of the Olympic podium after finishing second to Russia at the pandemic-delayed 2020 Games.

Most of the U.S. team that competed in Japan is hoping for a chance at redemption, including Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee, floor exercise gold medalist Jade Carey, world and Olympic medalist Jordan Chiles and — oh by the way — 2016 Olympic champion Simone Biles, who will compete for the first time since Tokyo at the U.S. Classic in Chicago next month.

The easing of name, image and likeness rules in recent years allowed Lee, Carey and Chiles to become the first generation of elite American gymnasts to compete collegiately while simultaneously cashing in on the endorsement opportunities their success provided.

It's a generation Thomas is also a part of, one of the reasons she is pursuing a second master's degree, this one in entrepreneurship.

“I think honestly NIL has changed the game,” Thomas said. "Having all the Olympic athletes come and compete in college gymnastics is incredible ... I think that’s honestly eye-opening. I don’t think it’s been done in the past before ... they’re pushing the boundaries of what you can do and I think that’s so special.”

One of the reasons Thomas is not hurrying to get back. While she's retained the basics of some of her elite skills, piecing them together will take time. She stressed she's not “building from scratch” but added a priority this summer is making sure she's ready — both physically and mentally — for the grind that awaits.

Thomas has no plans to compete again this year, saying it's simply “not smart." She instead hopes to make enough progress by the fall that she can petition to the U.S. national team camp in November.

“The skills will come,” she said. “But if I don't have my health first, it doesn't matter.”

It's a lesson she's learned over and over again in a sport where the injury rate is virtually 100%. A pair of sprained ankles in 2021 derailed her opportunity to make it to Tokyo. Her training regiment won't be quite as strident this time around, due in part to a shift in the mentality around what it takes to succeed at the highest level of her sport.

“You don’t have to do eight hours in the gym to be great," Thomas said. “What you have to do is take care of your body so that it’s going to work for you years down the road.”

Or at the very least, the next 13 months. Ever the realist, Thomas understands the odds of making what could be one of the most talented teams in the history of the U.S. women's program “are not necessarily great.”

They're the kind of odds Thomas can live with. She remembers the bitter disappointment of getting sidetracked in 2021. She also remembers that she responded by putting together one of the best NCAA seasons ever, a season built by focusing more on the process than the results.

It's a mindset she's taking into what could be an eventful last ride.

“I’m not really worried about the thing at the end of the tunnel," Thomas said. "I’m worried about doing it one step at a time and building on the foundation I have now.”


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