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Florida gymnastics to bring Equality Night messages to national spotlight vs. Alabama

Florida and Alabama will be part of one of the most-watched collegiate gymnastics meets ever on Sunday. And the Gators are making sure they’ll be heard, too.

Hannah White / Florida Gators

This Sunday’s Florida Gators gymnastics meet against Alabama is something special for the Gators — and for many reasons.

First, the meet will air on ABC at 2:45 p.m. Eastern, and as the first regular season NCAA gymnastics meet to be broadcast on a major network in the history of the sport. Second, this is a chance for Florida to compete against the defending SEC champions and one of the premier programs in collegiate gymnastics.

And third, and possibly most importantly to the Gators themselves, this meet is Florida’s Equality Night.

What does Equality Night mean? To senior Savannah Schoenherr, it’s about showing that this is “something much greater than just a sport (and) to stand up for equalities of all sorts.”

This Florida roster has made it a point to use their platforms and voices to spread awareness about topics that are important to them.

Nya Reed said that a lot of that started last season, when the team began to talk a lot more about racial equality. She said that the team has had roundtable discussions about “racial discrimination, how it is seen and how it has been misconstrued.“

She said this team knows “what [they] are standing for and what we are not allowing on the team.”

For these Gators, this has been about more than just speaking up. Last season, the entire Florida team was placed on the 2021 SEC Community Service Team for their work on a variety of initiatives, including Black Lives Matter, Pride, voter registration, and breast cancer awareness.

And personal activism and voicing support for causes they are passionate about seems likely to be something the Gators — and Gators to come — will continue to do.

Even before she joined the Gators roster, freshman Morgan Hurd had been consistently outspoken about anti-Asian sentiment, once speaking in New York City at an anti-AAPI violence rally. She even used her space in her Gators media guide bio to highlight her desire “to use her platform to raise awareness for change.”

Several Gators have already used their platforms to show acts of anti-racism by kneeling during the national anthem before Florida’s first meet, Alex Magee, Ellie Lazzari, Sloane Blakely, Savannah Schoenherr, Nya Reed, and Chloi Clark were seen kneeling at the first meet.

Schoenherr shared her thoughts on this action on social media, explicitly tying her decision to kneel to a choice to “use my privilege to fight for the rights of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color)” — something she said that the Florida athletics and marketing teams were incredibly supportive of. Per Schoenherr, as soon as she decided that she wanted to post a statement, Florida’s marketing staff was “completely on board and got (her) a graphic right away.” She felt “super supported in all of that and (grateful) for the staff (around them).”

Lazzari and Clark also shared their support for the social justice movement on social media last season.

This isn’t Florida’s first Equality Meet. Last season, the Gators gave that designation to a meet against Missouri, one against which featured Schoenherr — who is openly gay — running onto the floor with a Pride flag and both teams wearing rainbow bows in their hair.

But Reed mentioned that while the Gators had this equality themed meet, this year will be even more. This season, the meet is about several different causes that the athletes support — and it will happen in the lens of a broadcast network telecast.

Clearly, these Gators are using their voices for something bigger than themselves, and that’s something that has impressed coach Jenny Rowland. “They don’t have to do anything for me to be proud of them,” Rowland said earlier this week. “However, I am always proud that they are willing to step up and speak their voice and use their platform to benefit the good of everyone.”

Rowland is “also thankful that UF is allowing (them) to help us lift student-athletes’ voice(s).” Personally, I am proud and happy that the Florida athletics program is as supportive of these athletes as they are.

The various plans from Gators for this meet include Reed running out with a Black Lives Matter flag, Schoenherr running out with a Pride flag with a black fist, and the team wearing rainbow ribbons from Megan Skaggs’s Tiny Bows Project to support LGBTQ+ equality, with some black ribbons mixed in as well.

If you haven’t heard about Skaggs’s project, she has a ribbon that goes along with each meet that supports a different cause that is important to her. A portion of the proceeds from the ribbons are split between the different charities. This week’s Pride ribbons support The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis interverntion organization for LGBTQ+ young people.

Skaggs has said that this project is about using her extra year of eligibility — granted due to COVID wiping out the end of the 2020-21 season — to give back to the community.

This week, Reed and Schoenherr spoke about what they think that this means to young athletes who will be watching on Sunday on a main network.

Reed said “growing up, it meant) so much to me, seeing African-American gymnasts like Kytra (Hunter) and Dominique Dawes.” She is thinking about “what can we do to open those minds of little girls — because ultimately it starts with little kids, that’s how you make a change and how you make a difference.”

Schoenherr said she wished that there was something like this when she was a younger gymnast and that she thinks “it’s really great (for) the younger generation to see that and to see that it’s okay to be yourself and it’s okay to be different and it’s okay to embrace your difference and support others who aren’t the same as you.”

Through this meet, Schoenherr said, the Gators will be using their platform “to show that we are supportive of one another and that we have the support in our differences as humans.”

Reed was more succinct: For her, the message is “be true to yourself and love everybody.”

Maybe the Gators will show out and top Alabama with hundreds of thousands — at minimum — watching one of the most significant collegiate gymnastics meets ever. Maybe they won’t, given that Alabama has plenty of talented gymnasts on its own roster.

But regardless of the result, these athletes will be using their platforms — and the brightest spotlight they’ve known as Gators — to support all kinds of causes that they believe in. And I couldn’t be prouder of that.