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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

All Eyes on Trinity Thomas

The Florida gymnast, who spoke to Jezebel ahead of the NCAA Gymnastics Championships, is making waves for Black women within a predominantly white sport.

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Photo: C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images (Getty Images)

As Trinity Thomas heads into what could become one of the defining weeks of her gymnastics career, the Pennsylvania native appears calm and ready. Not that anyone should expect her to be nervous—the decorated athlete has extracted a mind-boggling 14 perfect 10’s in a number of pressure cooker situations throughout her NCAA career. Rather, it’s that Trinity Thomas is climbing to her personal peak during a time in history where every routine, every layout, and every aerial lends itself to a larger conversation: that women athletes are worthy of a whole lot more than they’re getting right now.

“The audience is growing, gymnastics is growing,” Thomas told Jezebel over the phone on Monday, days after her 21st birthday and just before she heads to Fort Worth for the Division I NCAA Gymnastics Championships with her University of Florida teammates. “It honestly feels magical. And it’s very overdue.”

The senior Gator and SEC gymnast of the year knows all eyes are on her. As she sets out to win her first career NCAA title, competing against the top names in gymnastics like Olympic gold medalist Jade Carey and silver medalist Jordan Chiles, Thomas says she’ll be “prepared to go out there and do what we do, like our normal.” But Trinity Thomas’ “normal” is nearly inconceivable to, well, normal people. A four-time national team member, Thomas was a member of the gold-medal-winning team at the 2018 Pan American Gymnastics Championships, and was ready to fight for a spot in the Tokyo Olympics before retiring to focus on healing injuries and her collegiate career.

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Thomas is also only the second Black gymnast ever to complete a “Gym Slam,” scoring a perfect 10 on each apparatus in her NCAA career (after Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross), as well as a “Season Slam,” meaning she also pulled off this feat in her 2022 season alone. She is the 12th college gymnast in history to accomplish a Gym Slam, and the third in her school’s history. Currently, Thomas shares the nation’s top 2022 all-around total (39.85) with her teammate Leanne Wong.

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For every Black athlete, and especially for Black women who face outsized discrimination in predominantly white sports like gymnastics, there’s a lot more riding on their successes than just another medal. Each accomplishment serves as an insistence that not only do these athletes belong in sports once defined by whiteness, but also that all Black girls deserve more opportunities and less barriers to enter the field regardless of athletic skill. Of course, Thomas is following in the footsteps of powerful Black women in gymnastics like Gabby Douglas, who became the first Black gymnast to win gold in the Olympic all-around in 2012, and Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist who’s been dubbed the GOAT. Yet, there is still work to be done to make gymnastics a more inclusive place.

“Growing up, I was one of the few Black gymnasts at my gym, so to have that type of representation with Gabby and Simone going to the Olympics was super important for me,” Thomas told me. “Once I got to this level, I was like, ‘Oh, now I’m one of those inspirations to the younger Black girls. Now they’re looking up to me.’ It’s something that I don’t take lightly.”

Last year, more than half of the 18 women invited to the Tokyo Olympic trials were women of color, an incredible number for elite gymnastics. However, in the collegiate realm, just 8% of Division I collegiate women gymnasts are Black women. That number is down 1% from 2020, and up only 2% from 2012, according to the NCAA demographics database. In 2021, white women made up 68% of Division I NCAA women gymnasts, while there were only 3 Black head coaches. That same year, Simone Biles withdrew from the all-around event at the Tokyo Olympics under extreme duress and mental health challenges. Then, earlier this year, the UCLA gymnastics leadership faced scrutiny over its handling of white teammate Alexis Jeffrey allegedly using frequent racial slurs and degrading her Black teammates by ranking them as the most unattractive on the team. The team had become a nationwide sensation with viral routines from Black teammates Nia Dennis, Jordan Chiles, and Margzetta Frazier, but its Black Excellence-themed meets and powerful displays of solidarity felt like empty promises in hindsight.

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Thomas says that stepping into such a space rooted in whiteness was initially difficult for her, as she didn’t have much experience being “separated” or being made to feel “different” due to her race. As her confidence has grown, she’s embraced her natural hair which she now wears in a poof and sometimes dyes blue. Also, her skills have developed to near superhuman levels, so she’s learned to proudly take up space. “Now, when I’m working with younger kids, I always point out how beautiful they are or how great they’re doing, just so that they feel noticed and that they feel accepted and included,” she says.

That newfound confidence has also enabled Thomas to take risks on the floor, by departing from the soft, ballet-informed movement and classical music that characterized gymnastic’s past. In her floor routines, Thomas does the worm, shimmies, and even tumbles to dubstep and Squid Game remixes. As she joins the ranks of women of color like Dennis, Chiles, and Frazier who have infused routines with personality and hip-hop, Thomas’ joyous performances have ripped old ideas about what gymnastics are supposed to look like to shreds.

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“I just wanted to grab everyone’s attention,” Thomas said. “That’s kind of what I go for every year…just something a little bit different. Something that I can bring the crowd in with my own personality and not something that is the norm.”

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Apparently, Thomas has grabbed more attention than just her audience’s. She also inked an NIL (name, image, and likeness) deal with H&R Block, alongside Chiles, basketball phenom Sedona Prince, and a number of other standout collegiate athletes. Through its “Fair Shot” initiative, the company provided $1 million in sponsorships and support for NCAA women athletes, including cash and tax services (Disclosure: H&R Block provided interview access to Thomas for this piece). Thomas is part of the first generation of collegiate athletes who have been allowed to personally profit off their own successes at a time when women make consistently less money playing professional sports than men. Notably, this is part of why basketball star Brittney Griner was detained in Russia: She was playing overseas in the WNBA offseason, away from her family, to offset her paltry salary.

Currently, gymnasts are making just .5% of NIL sponsorship money, compared to the more than 51% that male football players make. “We put in the same amount of work that the men are putting in, and I believe female athletes and their accomplishments deserve the same amount of recognition that men get,” said Thomas.

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Thomas remains a supernova in a sport marked by racism and abuses. Even without a medal this weekend (though chances of the phenom walking away with nothing are slim), she has already won.