Four years ago, San Jose State coach Wayne Wright and Thomasina Wallace took a chance on each other. It has worked out for both of them.
On Saturday, Wright will be taking his Spartans to an NCAA Regional for the sixth time since 2003 led by Wallace — the 2012 Western Athletic Conference Gymnast of the Year and the seventh-ranked all-arounder in the nation. The Spartans are the sixth seed in the Salt Lake City Regional hosted by Utah, and will be competing against the host Utes, Nebraska, Iowa State, Arizona State and Minnesota.
Going into her senior year of high school in August 2007, the Level 10 gymnast from Pomona, Calif., underwent surgery on the navicular bone in her ankle during gymnastics recruiting season. Many big-time programs that had shown interest in Wallace took a step back.
“I still went on recruiting trips, but some teams were hesitant of signing me because I had just had surgery and they didn’t know if I’d be back and ready for freshman year,” Wallace said.
But when Wallace visited San Jose State, it was like she and Wright had an instant connection. Even if the big-name schools had offered her scholarships, she would have gone with her gut and become a Spartan. Wallace also remembered a story from years before that her father told her about Wright.
“Wayne was at nationals and he sat near my dad and I probably had the worst meet of my life,” Wallace said. “But Wayne said, ‘that girl has potential.’ My dad said, ‘are you crazy?’ Even when I came for my recruiting trip, he still wanted me to sign and be on the team. He was still interested even though I was hurt and felt I would still be back in time for the season.”
“It was almost like I saw through her injury,” Wright said. “You could see the determination and the focus on what she is doing and you always know she’ll overcome any issue.”
San Jose State may not have had the pedigree as some of the Pac-10 and Big 12 programs that were recruiting Wallace at the time, but she knew one thing — Wright believed in her.
“We have always been a program where kids come who may not be a top-10 recruit, but they have potential and get better over the course of their time here,” Wright said.
In the summer before her freshman year, she trained with the U.S. Junior National Team after placing second in the all-around in the 2008 Junior Olympic Championships. She was the first Spartan to train with the U.S. Junior National Team, and the experience vaulted her to a stellar rookie season at SJSU.
After earning WAC Freshman of the Year honors, Wallace won the bars title at NCAA Regionals, tying a school-record score of 9.95 and becoming the first Spartan to claim a regional title. In the same meet, Wallace tied a school-record with a 39.400 in the all-around to quality for NCAA Championships as an all-arounder.
Expectations were high for her sophomore season, but a complete rupture of the Achilles forced her to miss the last two meets of the regular season, as well as the postseason.
“I worked really hard to get back in the gym and rehab,” Wallace. “A lot of people told me that you can either come back really strong or come back worse off than you were before … I wasn’t going to let that happen. I was determined to do my best and get back into the gym. I ended up coming back with a more difficult floor routine with a new pass. The injury pushed me to do better.”
“I have never seen an athlete with an Achilles injury come back as quickly as Thomi and come back to do all-around,” Wright said. “We’ve had them here before and that athlete wouldn’t tumble again or anything.”
Despite coming back from injury, Wallace had a solid junior season, garnering first-team All-WAC honors, and placing fourth in the all-around at NCAA Regionals.
“She’s been an inspiration to a lot of athletes who have had that injury that have called me and spoken with her to ask how she came back so fast and what did she do,” Wright said.
The comeback from such a serious injury was amazing, and but it has been during her senior season when Wallace really shown she is one of the top gymnasts in the nation.
Wallace has captured the all-around title in 11 of 12 meets this season, including at the WAC Championship with a 39.550 — the second-highest score in school history. A week before that achievement, she had set the school all-around record at 39.575 in the Spartans’ meet against Washington and Central Michigan.
“She has added more difficulty this year,” Wright said. “Every year since the injury we’ve added a little bit here and there. I think that drives her to better. When you are that talented, adding more difficulty makes you even better.”
Wallace currently ranks seventh in the nation with an all-around regional qualifying score of 39.455, behind gymnasts from schools such as Arkansas, Penn State, Nebraska and Florida. At Saturday’s regional in Salt Lake City, two Nebraska gymnasts — Jessie DeZiel and Emily Wong — are ranked above Wallace nationally, but the Spartan is looking to prove she belongs at nationals no matter which school she comes from.
“We’re always the underdog team trying to get rewarded for what we’re capable of doing,” Wallace said.
“I think it is frustrating sometimes because we do get overlooked and she gets overlooked,” Wright said. “She’s an exceptional athlete, but because she doesn’t come from a school with the big name, she’s not given that benefit. For me, it is so much more fulfilling to go out there and earn every score you’ve been given.”
It is Wallace’s last chance to qualify for nationals — something she has not done since her freshman year — and she is determined to get the opportunity to compete in Duluth, Ga., in two weeks.
“Knowing it is my last go round … I’m not holding back,” Wallace said. “I want to help my team with my scores. It’s been a great roller coaster as we’ve gone along but a true blessing.”