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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Hard work pays off for Taylor

The former walk-on earned a scholarship this season

Halley Taylor performs on the balance beam against Kentucky on Feb. 11.
Halley Taylor performs on the balance beam against Kentucky on Feb. 11.

Halley Taylor’s love for Florida gymnastics started when she was 10 years old in the summer of 2010. Starstruck and in a T-shirt three sizes too large, Taylor nervously approached Amy Ferguson, her hero, at the Florida Gators gymnastics camp. She had just won Camper of the Day. 

Ferguson asked the young gymnast for a high five and a photo, and then Ferguson signed her award. Before her time on the Florida gymnastics team from 2009-2012, Ferguson trained at the same gym as Taylor, LaFleur’s Tampa Gymnastics. As the shutter of the camera clicked, she sat and hoped she could one day be a Gator, too. 

This was the beginning of Taylor’s climb. She grew into a premier gymnast and turned down several scholarships to walk on to the Gators gymnastics team after several years of hard work, finally earning a scholarship her junior year.

Camper of Day.jpg
A young Halley Taylor poses with her “Camper of the Day” award after Gators gymnastics camp.

Before she starred at Florida, Taylor struggled to catch the attention of college programs. She didn’t receive scholarship offers until the latter part of high school, while many other high-school gymnasts were being showered with scholarships and committed to programs before their junior year. Taylor entered her senior high-school season unsure where she would compete next; she believed all the scholarship opportunities for gymnasts in her class had dried up. 

Then, Taylor dominated the Gasparilla Classic in St. Petersburg, her hometown, during her senior year. She recorded the top score in every event except for floor, where she finished second. She recorded a 9.65 on beam and the uneven bars that cemented her place as the top gymnast in her division. It is one of her father’s proudest moments of Taylor’s gymnastics career. 

She won the Jose Gaspar Award as the highest-scoring gymnast in her skill division. Taylor’s teammates from LaFleur’s Tampa Gymnastics jumped up and down in excitement and shed tears of pride. 

“It was pretty amazing because she’s been working at this since preschool,” her father, Timothy, said. 

The senior received three scholarship offers from North Carolina State, the University of Missouri and the University of Arkansas. None of those offers mattered when she was accepted into UF. 

Orange and blue runs deep in the Taylor family. Her father and her grandfather were both Gators. Despite not being offered a scholarship from UF, she passed on her other offers to follow her 10-year-old dream of being a Florida gymnast.

Halley and Alberta.jpg
Halley poses with Florida's mascot Alberta.

Taylor’s parents still took official visits to other schools so she wouldn’t have regrets about her decision. But even after a round of tours, Taylor still only envisioned herself in Gainesville.

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She stepped foot on UF’s campus for the first time as a student in August 2018, finally living out the dream she had since her early days of camp when she officially made the team. Now, entering her senior season with a scholarship in hand at Florida, Taylor said the team have become the sisters she never had. 

She said she enjoys how the Florida coaches let the gymnasts lead and have more of a role in the direction of the team compared to other schools. For example, the “stick chain” given to any Gators gymnast who sticks a landing was implemented by junior Nya Reed in January. 

Despite being a walk-on, Taylor said there was no disparity between her and the rest of the team. 

“Everyone on the team treated me exactly the same way,” she said. “Whether you’re on scholarship or a walk-on, you can’t tell the difference in the gym or out of the gym. Everyone works hard, and everyone does their part.”

That hard work paid dividends for Taylor and the team in 2021 where they held the top spot in national rankings for most of the season. Florida head coach Jenny Rowland had 12 gymnasts she could call upon to deliver when the team was fully healthy. Injuries, however, piled up for the Gators when the postseason began which kept them from winning the National Championship. 

After only competing in one non-exhibition routine her first two years, Taylor shined during her third. The highlight of her season came on Feb. 19 versus No. 11 Kentucky, where she was thrust into the lineup for vault, beam and floor after the Gators ruled out Reed, Trinity Thomas, Savannah Schoenherr, Sydney Johnson-Scharpf and coach Rowland after all five had to quarantine due to COVID-19 contact tracing. 

Still without a scholarship, Taylor rose to the occasion. She recorded new career-highs in two events, a 9.825 on the balance beam and a 9.8 in her floor routine. 

“I was really nervous,” she said. “It was a little bittersweet because I wanted my entire team to be there, even though some of them had to watch from home.”

Taylor felt her hard work finally paid off after the Kentucky meet, but her personal achievements reached new heights on March 30. Rowland called Taylor up to the front of the gym to share her motivation for practice — a daily team tradition — just two days before NCAA regionals.

She said Rowland has a gymnast identify a word and quote of the day before each practice began, and it was her turn. 

Fighting through her fear of public speaking, Taylor walked to the front of the gym and stood to the left of her coach. After Taylor spoke, Rowland had her own speech to give about what Taylor meant to Florida gymnastics. 

“She has really excelled this year, being a leader and a great team member.” Rowland said in a video of the event. “Someone you can go to. She has given what she’s got and given all her heart in the gym and out of the gym.” 

Then speaking directly to Taylor, Rowland presented Taylor her with a long coveted scholarship.  

The Gators practice facility burst with screams and applause from her teammates and coaches. Taylor started to shiver and immediately buried her face into her hands to hide her tears and red face. 

Schoenherr rushed forward to give Taylor a hug as the rest of the squad swarmed her to celebrate. 

“The best part was how much love I got from the team that day,” Taylor said. “They were so proud of me.”

Rowland appreciates the hard work Taylor put in the past three years. 

“Taylor has given so much to this program, and we didn’t want that to go unrecognized,” she said. “We are grateful and thankful for everything she’s done for this program.”

Once the cheers died down, Taylor asked for a moment to share the news with her parents, but Timothy and her mother had already seen the moment captured on Instagram. 

Alicia Taylor, her mother, watched the video and immediately texted Timothy urging him to look at the Gators gymnastics Instagram account. His jaw dropped when he heard coach Rowland offer Taylor the scholarship.

“It was just unbelievable because it was something we didn’t expect,” Timothy said. “I think more than anything it legitimized her hard work.”

When Taylor called him, Timothy told her how proud he was of her as tears swelled in their eyes. 

Timothy appreciated the reaction of her teammates, too, and the joy they showed for Taylor. 

“They really have a tight bond,” Timothy said. “They’re really close; they respect each other, and they love each other.”

Though she fits the T-shirt now and her scholarship certainly outweighs her Camper of the Day award, the Gators gymnast Taylor took a picture with 11 years ago is still cheering her on.

“It has been so incredible to watch her journey from those first days at Gator Camp to being an integral member of the team,” Ferguson said. “She really shows that if you are committed to your dreams with all your heart, you can achieve anything.”

Taylor still has no regrets about walking-on to the Gators gymnastics team. She looks forward to this summer when a young Gators gymnastics camper walks shyly up to her the way she walked up to Ferguson all those years ago. Now, though, Taylor is the hero and blueprint for that gymnast as she inspires the next generation. 

Contact Zachary Huber at zhuber@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber. 

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