That’s why Sunisa Lee kept her promise and came to Auburn. And why Trinity Thomas endured in Florida.
To compete on the podium with their sport stopping to watch. To celebrate with their teammates in the spotlight. To win a chance to have one more chance.
The two gymnastics stars ticked every box in Thursday night’s NCAA Women’s Team Semifinals.
Lee, the first Olympic champion to compete collegiately, helped send Auburn to the final for only the second time since 1993 as the Tigers finished second to Florida in the second semifinal to advance to Saturday’s last four.
Thomas won the all-around title, capping a stunning performance with a perfect 10 floor exercise as the Gators earned the right to join Lee and the Tigers along with Oklahoma and Utah for a shot at a championship national.
“I feel absolutely amazing,” said Thomas, who finished with a total of 39.8125, just ahead of Lee at 39.675 and Florida teammate Megan Skaggs at 39.6625. “I’ve been working on this since I was in school and I just had a few setbacks, you know, I kept fighting. And to finally do it this time is literally a blessing.
Even though Thomas initially didn’t know her 10 on floor — the 11th perfect score she’s had this season, best in the nation — made her the fourth Gator to win the all-around in the past decade. She was so focused on getting Florida to the team finals that she didn’t really care about their overall position until the end of the competition.
“(I asked my teammates) ‘do you know what all-around was?’ And they were like, ‘No,’ and I was like, ‘Me neither,'” Thomas said with a laugh. “So I had no idea, actually.”
Thomas eventually turned to fellow senior Savannah Schoenherr, the team’s resident calculator. When Schoenherr informed his longtime teammate that it was probably her, Thomas let out a half-surprised “oh.”
Consider it a testament to Thomas’ ability to stay in the moment.
An equipment problem when Florida was on the uneven bars caused Thomas to wait a long 10 minutes for it to be fixed. She passed the time by making jokes. When it was finally her turn to leave, she delivered a 9.9750, the best of the evening.
“I’m so glad Trinity had to wait,” Florida coach Jenny Rowland said. “If it were to be someone, Trinity is great at being able to get rid of it and just go with the flow and step up and elevate their game.”
The same goes for Lee.
Eight months ago, she pulled off the meet of her life in Tokyo, becoming the fifth consecutive American to win all-around gold. She didn’t let newfound fame distract her from going to Auburn, even though her stardom created inflated expectations. The 19-year-old admitted feeling nervous on Thursday before receiving a pep talk from Olympic teammate Jordan Chiles, now competing for UCLA.
Chiles’ advice was simple: try to remember that it’s supposed to be fun.
“I think (after that) I really took the pressure off myself and just went out there and enjoyed it,” said Lee, who won the beam title in addition to finishing second behind Thomas in the all-around.
Lee happily ran towards her teammates after her uneven bars routine served as the exclamation point that pushed Auburn into the final.
Chiles wasn’t the only one giving pep talks. Earlier in the day, Oklahoma reached the final for the ninth straight time posting a team score of 198.112, the best of the day. The statement came a day after receiving a pep talk from former Oklahoma star and current Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The Sooners chatted with Mayfield – who won the Heisman Trophy in Oklahoma in 2017 – on Wednesday night, with Mayfield urging them to “feel dangerous” as the program bids for its fourth title since 2016.
Oklahoma moved up front on the second rotation, using a stellar set on uneven bars to slip by the Utes first. The set included a 9.887 from Olivia Trautman, competing for the first time this season after being limited by a knee injury.
“(Mayfield) told us to do our thing and believe in ourselves,” Trautman said.
Utah reached the final for the fourth time in five championships by finishing the encounter with a rock-solid beam. The Utes’ score of 49.600 was the event’s highest in the first semifinal, ending any hopes of Alabama or Minnesota closing the gap.
Defending national champion Michigan’s bid for a repeat ended in the third rotation of the second session, where a wobbly play on uneven bars dropped the Wolverines in the standings to fourth behind Florida, Auburn and Missouri.
The finals will feature familiar faces from Oklahoma, Florida and Utah. Lee’s arrival helped propel the Tigers into a heady business, which was the plan from the start when she fulfilled her commitment to compete for Auburn.
What happens next for Lee is unknown. She has made no secret of her desire to return to elite competition ahead of the 2024 Olympics, a process that could begin sooner rather than later which could make her gymnastics equivalent to ‘one and done’ .
This decision will only be made after the season, a season that still has one meeting to do.
“I’m really proud of us,” Lee said.