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Present, future of Florida Gators gymnastics collide at U.S. Championships

One returning gymnast, one incoming freshman and two future commits will compete at Amalie Arena this weekend.
Kayla DiCello will be one of four current or future Florida Gators competing at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships this weekend.
Kayla DiCello will be one of four current or future Florida Gators competing at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships this weekend. [ HIRO KOMAE | AP ]
Published Aug. 18|Updated Aug. 18

TAMPA — For Jenny Rowland and her Florida staff, attendance at this weekend’s U.S. Gymnastics Championships at Amalie Arena has a twofold purpose.

The eighth-year coach can support her current athletes. Leanne Wong, a freshman in 2021-22 after being an alternate for the U.S. team at the Tokyo Olympics, enters as a favorite. She won silver in the all-around at least year’s world championships and the all-around and two individual event titles at July’s U.S. Classic. Kayla DiCello, another Tokyo Olympics alternate and the all-around bronze medalist at last year’s world championships, will drive to campus next week to start her first year with the Gators.

And then there are the two Florida commits are competing: Skye Blakely and Shilese Jones. Mixed in, perhaps at the junior level, might be future recruits.

“It’s just kind of cool knowing (how many) elite gymnasts will be going into Florida,” Blakely said Thursday. “It just makes you think about how great it will be and how you can just keep getting better.”

Skye Blakely competes on the uneven bars during the U.S. Gymnastics Championship last year.
Skye Blakely competes on the uneven bars during the U.S. Gymnastics Championship last year. [ TONY GUTIERREZ | AP ]

Rowland and her staff coached the Gators to a second-place finish at the 2022 NCAA team championships. They drove to Tampa from Gainesville for podium training for the U.S. championships Wednesday afternoon, a route Rowland planned to travel twice this week around Florida’s freshmen orientation.

“We’re just really excited to be there in a couple different capacities: supporting and looking for future Gators,” Rowland said.

Wong will join a select group this weekend. Only nine gymnasts since 2000 have competed in the NCAA and U.S. championships in the same year, according to Florida Athletics.

Name, image and likeness rules present gymnasts with a benefit to compete in college while still participating in elite competitions, Rowland said. They can “make a little money on the side” and strike a training balance for both levels. Gymnasts have also recently stretched careers longer than in the past. Before, a 16-year-old might peak, but Rowland said that has changed as coaching and training have evolved.

“Now you just see these young women maturing and maybe going through the collegiate scene,” Rowland said, “and gaining more experience and gaining more competitive experience and more confidence and strength, and being able to show that it’s possible to do both.”

Kayla DiCello competes on the vault during the women's U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials last year.
Kayla DiCello competes on the vault during the women's U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials last year. [ JEFF ROBERSON | AP ]

Rowland called DiCello the “energizer bunny” because she “just keeps going.” DiCello originally planned to start classes at Florida during the summer, but DiCello felt she had a “little bit more to give.” It prompted her to compete throughout the summer, while assuring Rowland she planned to be at UF in the fall.

That’s why the belongings for DiCello’s UF room traveled to Tampa. Her mother will help with the move after the competition.

“I packed everything, and I came down with it,” DiCello said.

Blakely and Jones, who plan to defer their collegiate careers until fall 2024, will compete against Wong and DiCello this weekend at the senior level. Blakely’s sister, Sloane, was a freshman at UF last season. Skye attended the NCAA team final in Fort Worth, Texas, near their hometown, Frisco.

Rowland traveled to Frisco in September 2021 for an at-home recruiting dinner with Skye. Sloane had started her first season at UF, and Skye took an official visit to the university about three weeks prior. “It was amazing, and I wanted to be there,” Skye said about her tour.

When Rowland came for dinner, Skye said she didn’t think the coach knew she planned to commit to the Gators. But she didn’t know how to bring it up in conversation. Eventually, near the end of their meal of Mexican food, she told Rowland about accepting the Gators’ offer.

The look on Rowland’s face afterward made Skye even more excited. The pair started a FaceTime with Florida assistants Adrian Burde and Owen Field, and Rowland filled them in about their latest link between the present and future.

“Our journey was just always together, so it’s kind of cool that (Sloane and I) get to go to the same college,” Skye said.

Contact Andrew Crane at acrane@tampabay.com. Follow @CraneAndrew.

U.S. Gymnastics Championships

Through Sunday, Amalie Arena

Friday/Sunday: Junior women, 1:30 p.m.; senior women, 7

Saturday: Junior men Day Two, 1:30; senior men Day Two, 7

TV: Senior men, 7 Saturday, CNBC; senior women, 7 Sunday, NBC

Streaming: Senior women, 7 Friday and Sunday, Peacock and nbcsports.com; senior men, 7 Saturday, Peacock and nbcsports.com

Tickets: amaliearena.com

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