This is why Sunisa Lee kept her promise and came to Auburn. And why Trinity Thomas endured at Florida.
To compete on the podium with their sport stopping to watch. To celebrate with their teammates under the lights. To earn a chance to have one more chance.
The two gymnastics stars checked every box during the NCAA women’s team semifinals on Thursday night.
Lee, the first Olympic champion to compete collegiately, helped send Auburn to the finals for just the second time since 1993 as the Tigers finished second to Florida in the second semifinal to qualify for Saturday’s final four.
Thomas claimed the all-around title, capping a showstopping performance with a perfect 10 on floor exercise as the Gators earned the right to join Lee and the Tigers as well as Oklahoma and Utah for a shot at a national championship.
“I feel absolutely amazing,” said Thomas, who finished with an all-around total of 39.8125, just ahead of Lee at 39.675 and Florida teammate Megan Skaggs at 39.6625. “I’ve been working through this ever since I got to school and just having a few setbacks, you know, I kept fighting. And to finally do it this time is literally a blessing.”
Even if Thomas didn’t initially know her 10 on floor — the 11th perfect score she’s collected this season, tops in the country — made her the fourth Gator to win the all-around in the last decade. She was so focused on making sure Florida made it to the team final she didn’t really pay attention to where she stood in the overall standings until the meet was over.
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“(I asked my teammates) ‘do you know what the all-around was?’ And they were like, ‘No,’ and I was like, ‘Me neither,’” Thomas said with a laugh. “So, I had no clue, actually.”
Thomas eventually turned to fellow senior Savannah Schoenherr, the team’s resident calculator. When Schoenherr informed her longtime teammate it was probably her, Thomas let out a semi-surprised “oh.”
Consider it a testament to Thomas’ ability to stay in the moment.
An equipment issue when Florida was on the uneven bars forced Thomas to wait 10 long minutes while it was fixed. She passed the time by cracking jokes. When it was finally her turn to go, she delivered a 9.9750, the best of the night.
“I’m so glad it was Trinity that had to wait,” Florida coach Jenny Rowland said. “If it was going to be somebody, Trinity is great one to be able to shake it off and just go with the flow and step up and raise her game.”
The same goes for Lee.
Eight months ago she pulled off the meet of her life in Tokyo, becoming the fifth straight American woman to capture gold in the all-around. She didn’t let newfound fame distract her from going to Auburn, even if her celebrity created outsized expectations. The 19-year-old admitted to feeling jitters on Thursday before getting a pep talk from Olympic teammate Jordan Chiles, now competing for UCLA.
Chiles’ advice was simple: try to remember this is supposed to be fun.
“I think (after that) I really took the pressure off of myself and I just went out there and enjoyed it,” said Lee, who won the beam title in addition to finishing runner-up to Thomas in the all-around.
Lee joyfully ran to her teammates after her uneven bars routine served as the exclamation point that pushed Auburn to the finals.
Chiles wasn’t the only one handing out pep talks. Earlier in the day, Oklahoma reached the finals for the ninth straight time by 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 at Oklahoma in 2017 — on Wednesday night, with Mayfield urging them to “feel dangerous” as the program tries to win its fourth title since 2016.
Oklahoma moved in front during the second rotation, using a stellar set on uneven bars to slip by the Utes into first. The set included a 9.887 from Olivia Trautman, competing in the event for the first time this season after being limited by a knee injury.
“(Mayfield) told us to just do our stuff and believe in ourselves,” Trautman said.
Utah reached the finals for the fourth time in five championships by finishing the meet with a rock-solid beam set. The Utes’ score of 49.600 was the highest in the event during the first semifinal, ending any hope of Alabama or Minnesota closing the gap.
Defending national champion Michigan’s bid for a repeat ended during the third rotation of the second session, where a wobbly set on uneven bars sent the Wolverines tumbling down the standings to fourth behind Florida, Auburn and Missouri.
The finals will feature familiar faces in Oklahoma, Florida and Utah. Lee’s arrival helped thrust the Tigers into heady company, which was the plan all along when she stuck with 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 in preparation for the 2024 Olympics, a process that could start sooner rather than later, which could make her a gymnastics equivalent of “one and done.”
That decision won’t be made until after the season, a season that has one more meet to go.
“I’m really proud of us,” Lee said.