In February, at the UCLA gymnastics Pride meet celebrating inclusivity and the LGBTQ community, students and super-fans Josh Lim and Laura DeFalco draped Pride flags over the shoulders of the Bruin gymnasts who had just stuck their floor routines. DeFalco vividly remembers those flags waving cape-like behind the gymnasts, sporting rainbow leotards, as they ran.

“It was really special to be a part of that and also to be celebrating the queer community,” said DeFalco, a math and statistics dual-major who graduated in June. “I’ve looked up to the team for so long.”

While UCLA gymnastics attracts fans of all ages, young people carving out new fandom platforms are having a moment, according to DeFalco, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community. And events like the annual Pride meet — and the safe and welcoming atmosphere the team has created for all its supporters — have played no small part in driving that enthusiasm.

In recent years, the team roster has included LBGTQ competitors and outspoken allies who have used their far-reaching social media platforms for advocacy. And floor routines have incorporated music choices and moves that resonate with the LGBTQ community, including ballroom, a dance form and culture originating in the late 1970s at New York City’s Black and brown queer clubs that includes the performance art known as “voguing.”

The team’s embrace of inclusivity and self-expression has inspired fans like DeFalco and Lim, who have been fixtures at home meets, parked in the front row of the Den, Pauley Pavilion’s student section. Sporting UCLA-themed Hawaiian shirts, the two are well known for mirroring the gymnasts’ floor routines, learned by attending practices and watching YouTube videos.

UCLA gymnast Brooklyn Moors poses for a picture between super fans Josh Lim and Laura DeFalco at a meet.
Courtesy of Josh Lim
Left to right: Josh Lim, UCLA gymnast Brooklyn Moors and Laura DeFalco.

The best friends, who met while members of UCLA’s VSU Modern dance team, both competed in gymnastics growing up, with Lim continuing all four years in UCLA club gymnastics. He served as club president his third and fourth year, leading the group to its most successful intercollegiate gymnastics club nationals in history this past spring. 

“I would say I’m the biggest student fan leader there is,” said Lim, who earned media coverage and inspired Reddit threads celebrating his moves and spirit.

Lim, who graduated this month with bachelor’s degrees in applied math and in statistics and data science, made it his mission to bolster fandom for UCLA gymnastics among his club gymnastics team members, along with anyone who wanted to dance along at the NCAA meets. He would go to meets early to teach others in UCLA’s student-run spirit squad what he calls the “Den-ography.” 

“It was my role to help lead the students in trying to make the Den as interactive as possible,” Lim said. “I’m just so happy I can be a part of this bigger thing and create this wonderful floor party in Pauley.”

Among those who have been part of that “bigger thing” is Lauren Rife. Rife, who attended Cal State Northridge, and who identifies as asexual, became a dedicated fan of Bruin gymnastics after following gymnast Kyla Ross’ progress from the 2012 Olympics to UCLA.

Following the Bruins’ NCAA national championships in 2018, Rife launched UCLA Gym Source, a multiplatform news and information hub that features streaming video blogs from meets, updates about the team, highlights from athletes’ public social media accounts and the occasional selfie with team members. Significantly, she also uses the platform to advocate for the LGBTQ community and said UCLA Gym Source felt like a secure place to do so. 

“UCLA has just been a safe space for me,” Rife said. “The parents and everyone have always been supportive and friendly.”

Lim, who has been a regular consumer of Rife’s content for years, said, “That’s part of the reason why I got into UCLA gymnastics — UCLA gymnastics is just such a legendary program, and it attracts a wide variety of people as fans.”

It has helped that the team, from head coach Janelle McDonald on down have embraced that supportive environment for both athletes and fans. Historically, LGBTQ representation has been in short supply in NCAA gymnastics, but UCLA — as it had with both racial and cultural representation — has bucked that trend.

Gymnastics team member Kalyany Steele, for example, who graduated in 2023, was one of the first “out” gymnasts in the NCAA. Steele announced that she was bisexual in a 2020 video that went viral on social media. And she and teammate Emma Andres, who also identifies as bisexual, addressed issues of sexual and gender identity and how to support the LGBTQ community in a 2021 Facebook post.

“For kids watching on TV,” Steele said, “I think it’s really important for them to have representation — to know that there are people like them who can do cool things.”

Fan messages from those in the LGBTQ community poured in for Steele, who was touched that people of all ages shared their coming out stories with her or credited her with giving them the courage to come out to a coach or family member.

Courtesy of Lauren Rife
Lauren Rife (left), vlogger and creator of UCLA Gym Source, takes a selfie with UCLA gymnast Chae Campbell after a meet.

“I feel super lucky to have the opportunity to have that kind of impact on people,” said Steele, who noted that having such an open-minded and accepting gymnastics team also helps instill a feeling of self-confidence among LGBTQ and other fans, allowing them to express themselves fully.

“Everyone supports each other and really loves each other,” she said, “I think you can feel that.”

The morning Lim spoke with Newsroom, he was touched that “the entire world” seemed to be congratulating UCLA gymnast Emma Malabuyo, who qualified to represent the Philippines in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Beaming, Lim scrolled through a feed about Malabuyo on his phone. “To have all this enormous positivity from a huge group of people,” he said. “It is just awesome.”

Laura DeFalco and Josh Lim are seen in the front row (right) cheering on gymnast Emma Malabuyo as she takes the floor at the 2024 Pride meet.
Jesus Ramirez/UCLA Athletics
Laura DeFalco and Josh Lim are seen in the front row (right) cheering on gymnast Emma Malabuyo as she takes the floor at the 2024 Pride meet.