Students + Campus

Path to gymnastics championship was full of balancing high stakes

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UCLA gymnastics with NCAA trophy
Amy Sanderson/UCLA Athletics

Bruin gymnasts celebrate the team’s seventh NCAA title, UCLA’s 115th overall, in April 2018.

Basketball goes mad in March. But gymnastics blooms in April. On the magical Saturday of April 21, 2018, Bruin gymnasts won their seventh national championship with an improbable, breathtaking, last-second comeback — title No. 115 for UCLA.

The reigning champion Oklahoma Sooners were heavily favored to win their third straight title. To quote UCLA Head Coach Valorie Kondos Field, Oklahoma is “a machine.” During the regular season, the Sooners topped 198 points seven times to UCLA’s two. And for most of the championship competition in Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis, they looked like the team to beat.

UCLA opened the Super Six in the floor exercise event, their strong suit. An uncharacteristic fall put some pressure on the lineup. But Felicia “Fish” Hano scored a 9.9, while Katelyn Ohashi’s Michael Jackson–themed routine earned 9.95. The total for the rotation: 49.4625. A solid score, but three Super Six teams would surpass it.

On average, vault is UCLA’s lowest-ranked event. At the Super Six, no Bruin gymnast scored below 9.8, but neither did anyone break the 9.9 barrier. The team scored a respectable 49.2250 in the vault rotation, good for fifth in the Super Six.

Typically, the bye rotation is a time to return to the locker room, relax and stretch out. But Associate Head Coach Chris Waller had other ideas. With the Bruins sitting in fourth place, he issued a wake-up call: “We don’t quit, under any circumstance. We’re gonna finish this thing like champions.”

The bar rotation turned into a highlight reel: JaNay Honest scored 9.9. Madison Kocian earned 9.9375, her highest score in a brief, postsurgery season. Christine Peng-Peng Lee received a perfect 10. Kyla Ross finished the rotation with a 9.95, giving the Bruins a score of 49.6375, the second-highest bar total in Super Six history. Their coach, “Miss Val,” went back to the locker room for tissues to wipe away her tears.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I would learn later that our chance of winning was less than 3 percent,” Miss Val says. She tried to gather herself for an ESPN interview right before the last rotation, telling the reporter, “It’s a good thing I have no affinity for math, because in my mind we can still win this thing.”

The final scene was set for UCLA’s last rotation on the balance beam. At less than four inches wide, the beam is the smallest of stages. Bruins on beam don’t just compete, they perform. On April 21, their performances broke team and Super Six records.

Grace Glenn earned a leadoff score of 9.9375. The next competitor fell, putting pressure on transfer Brielle Nguyen — like Glenn, in the Super Six for the first time. Nguyen scored 9.8750. Then came Katelyn Ohashi, 9.95, followed by Kyla Ross, 9.9875.

Oklahoma had finished its rotations in the competition, so it was all up to senior Peng-Peng Lee, who needed 9.975 to put UCLA ahead. This was the last beam routine of Lee’s college career, and she would hold nothing back.

“At the end of her routine, the arena erupted with fans from different schools chanting, ‘10, 10, 10, 10!’ ” Miss Val says. “Our team was sobbing because we had finished the meet with the most stellar performance we could ever imagine.”

A few minutes of suspense. Another perfect 10. With a beam rotation of 49.7500, the final score was UCLA 198.0750, Oklahoma 198.0375. And with that, the Bruins were national champs once again.

There was one other factor that set the Bruins apart from their Super Six competitors: They were the only ones who did not wear face tattoos. “Our young women are so beautiful, I don’t feel adding a face tattoo enhances their beauty,” Miss Val says.

And a good thing, too. Between tears and hugs, no logo would have survived the Super Six victory of 2018.

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