Each year, as spring quarter comes to a close, UCLA might expect to collect an NCAA championship. Sounds a bit hubristic, yes. But it’s something the university’s athletics teams have done 121 times overall now, so, yeah. But … three? Last spring, Bruins in three sports — gymnastics, men’s volleyball and women’s tennis — rose above all others in their respective fields. Gymnastics and tennis titles were earned by individuals (and therefore don’t count toward UCLA’s official total championships), while the men’s volleyball team also reached the top spot. Such a haul of NCAA medals and trophies in just six weeks is astonishing even for an athletics program of UCLA’s pedigree. Here, how it all unfolded.
Jordan Chiles, Gymnastics
As the infectious horn samples of DJ Kool’s 1996 crowd-pleaser “Let Me Clear My Throat” reverberated around Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, in April, Jordan Chiles launched into her floor exercise routine at the NCAA Gymnastics semifinals. For an exuberant and energetic 90 seconds, the Olympic silver medalist punctuated double flips and twists with rhythmic dance movements. The judges crowned Chiles’ ’90s hip-hop and R&B-flavored routine with a perfect 10, which merited her an individual floor exercise national championship.
As electric as she had been on the floor, Chiles was exacting on the uneven bars, sticking the landing after an equally impressive and difficult routine. She punched the air in triumph before embracing Janelle McDonald, The R.C. Rothman UCLA Head Gymnastics Coach. Another perfect 10, another individual championship. Nothing new here.
The sad thing for Bruins fans (apart from the team falling short of a national title) is the fact that Chiles won’t be sporting a UCLA blue leotard for a while — the 22-year-old is deferring a year of college to focus on her preparations for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. But for the Washington state native, success at the collegiate level feels every bit as special as it does in elite competition. “I set a goal to become national champion,” Chiles says, “and that I was able to accomplish that in two events was huge for me.”
UCLA has emerged at the top of men’s collegiate volleyball no less than 20 times. But the 2023 vintage was especially sweet, bringing a 17-year drought to an end — and UCLA’s overall NCAA championships total to 121. It was also the first time the Bruins had won a national championship under the leadership of someone not named Al Scates ’61, M.S. ’62. John Speraw ’95, who won it all twice as a middle blocker playing for Scates and then three more times as his assistant, is now the championship-winning head coach of UCLA (having previously done the trick three times with UC Irvine). It’s also worth noting the job Speraw does in his “spare time”: He has served as the U.S. national team’s head coach since 2013.
“There has been some pressure building on us at UCLA to put it over the top,” Speraw says over the phone before jetting off to Tokyo for Olympic qualifiers with Team USA. “I continuously remind our athletes that this is your time, not anybody else’s, and here’s how you can and should handle these moments.”
In Virginia, the Bruins proved they can handle pressure by overcoming two-time defending champs University of Hawaii in the final. A deep UCLA squad, led by tournament MVP senior Alex Knight ’23, finished the season with a 31–2 record, a mark that Speraw had never previously reached as a coach. After he and the U.S. national team secure their tickets to Paris for the summer, Speraw will be excited to get back into the gym with a UCLA group that boasts a great core of leaders. “Then,” he says, “we’ll see about winning another national championship.”
Tian Fangran, Women’s Tennis
After freshman Tian Fangran booked her passage to the NCAA women’s singles final, Rance Brown, a 26-year veteran of the UCLA women’s tennis coaching staff, remarked, “Our university loves building champions.” It proved prescient: in the final, Tian defeated the University of Oklahoma’s Layne Sleeth in straight sets. For the first time since 1995, a Bruin became an individual national champion in tennis. It’s not that Tian achieved the victory in the Orlando tournament without breaking a sweat. But she did manage it without dropping a single set in her six matches.
Hailing from Beijing, Westwood’s newest national champion credits her UCLA coaches for preaching the positivity and calm problem-solving that get her through matches, and she praises her talented teammates for making her game more consistent. Still, she says of the honor, “The most precious thing it brought me was confidence and belief in myself.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Winter 2024 issue.