UCLA's gymnastics team has adopted as its role model not a gymnast, but a legend: John Wooden. When last season's team celebrated its national championship with an awards banquet in May, Wooden was among those who honored the team. The way the team dominated its meets reminded me of Wooden's championship teams that often defeated opponents by 50 points or more.
Last year's seniors, Lena Degteva and Heidi Moneymaker, are gone but should never be forgotten. It's time to give them their rightful place among UCLA's greatest student-athletes ever, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson, Bill Walton and Troy Aikman. The loss of such gifted athletes and leaders would devastate most teams in most sports, but there are compelling reasons to think that even without Lena and Heidi, this year's team will be special.
The first reason for confidence is Head Coach Valorie Kondos-Field, who has built not just a championship team, but a championship program. She is the best choreographer in gymnastics and demands high standards athletically and academically. The team respects her and responds. They excel in the classroom, earning a very impressive team grade point average of 3.29 higher than UCLA's overall undergraduate GPA (just under 3.1) and we've seen how well they achieve in their sport.
Eighteen other reasons to believe are the team members themselves. Senior Mohini Bhardwaj, this year's NCAA bars champion and a first-team All-American, is very talented, and has a lot of help from the rest of the roster. Last year's "Fab Five" freshman class Onnie Willis, Malia Jones, Doni Thompson, Kristin Parker and Carly Raab are returning as sophomores. They are joined by juniors Stephanie Johnson, Lindsey Dong (both Academic All-Americans) and Valerie Velasco.
UCLA has recruited the top freshman class in the country with Kristin Maloney and Jamie Dantzscher, who both competed for the United States in the Summer Olympics; Alyssa Beckerman, who was an alternate to the Olympic team; Yvonne Tousek, who led Canada's Olympic team; and Jeanette Antolin, who competed in the U.S. Olympic trials. Four other talented freshmen have also joined the team: Angie D'Agostino, Christy Erickson, Trishna Patel and Jamie Williams.
You can meet Kondos and the team at a free exhibition Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. at the John Wooden Center. Regular season meets at UCLA are held Sundays in Pauley Pavilion: Jan. 21, Jan. 28, Feb. 11, March 4 and March 18. Tickets are $8 for adults, $6 for kids.
How will this team do without Degteva and Moneymaker? We know this much: The team will start the season ranked No. 1. Degteva and Moneymaker are still providing inspiration. And remember: John Wooden's teams achieved great success after the graduation of their superstars, as other superstars took their place.
Stuart Wolpert is a senior media relations representative for the College of Letters and Science. To RSVP for the Nov. 5 event, call (310) 825-2343, or send an e-mail to email@example.com by Nov. 1.