Last year the UCLA women's gymnastics team missed winning the national collegiate championship by half a point, finishing second to the University of Utah.
This year the team, ranked eighth in the NCAA coaches' poll, expected to have another chance at that crown.
But injuries have sidelined the Bruin's top three gymnasts and the team is struggling in Western Collegiate Athletic Assn. (WCAA) competition.
Sophomore Karen McMullin, who holds the UCLA record on the balance beam (a score of 9.85), has been out of action since the Jan. 19 Arizona State meet when she dislocated her right elbow executing a simple flip at the end of her floor exercise. Ironically, she scored enough points (36.60) to take first place as best all-round gymnast.
It will be at least five weeks before she competes.
Another Star Falls
Eight days after McMullin was injured, sophomore Leslie Goldberg, a standout on the balance beam, tore ligaments in her right ankle when she dismounted.
She may be out for the the season.
And an old ankle injury had forced sophomore Trina Tinti to redshirt this season. She holds the UCLA record on the uneven parallel bars (9.75) and tied the UCLA record for all-around individual performance (38.75) at last year's UCLA Invitational.
And there was the no-show of 1984 Olympic silver medalist Tracee Talavera, who had promised to join the Bruins but opted to tour with other U. S. gymnasts. Even though her earnings from that tour went into a trust fund, she is barred from collegiate competition under NCAA rules.
That leaves the squad with one senior, one sophomore and four freshmen.
Hurt but Determined
But Coach Jerry Tomlinson doesn't consider his team out of the running: "Sure, in terms of team depth and emotionally the injuries hurt us, but the team is working incredibly hard. It's as if each girl said to herself, 'Now I'm really going to work hard or our chances are gone.' The workouts are intense as the Bruin gymnasts prepare for the UCLA Invitational at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Pauley Pavilion against USC, Cal State Fullerton, Brigham Young and Oregon State. Last year the Bruins won, setting a school record for total points scored at a single meet (187.35).
UCLA (1-2 in league dual meets) has dropped its last two to Utah, ranked No. 1 in the nation, and to Arizona State, ranked No. 2. In WCAA competition the top three teams will go to the NCAA regionals on March 30 at Oregon State. The winner and five other regional winners go to the NCAA national championship April 12-13 at Utah.
Tomlinson sees no problem in reaching the regionals but will not predict whether UCLA would be in the nationals. "I've got to see how they'll perform without McMullin and Goldberg."
Need 175 Points
The hobbled Bruins have a goal of 175 team points at Saturday's meet to stay in the running for the regionals, the coach said. They have been averaging 179 points, scoring a season-high (180.15) at Utah in mid-January, but that was before the injuries hit.
Usually a coach can rig player rotation, juggling weaker and stronger gymnasts to attain higher scores in different events, but with only six competitors Tomlinson is in a bind. "It's a scary situation," Tomlinson said. "I don't know if I even have a strategy for the invitational."
His prediction? "We'll give a good run for first place, but in all probability we'll finish second to Fullerton."
But Fullerton's nine-woman squad (4-1 in conference dual meets), ranked fourth in the nation, is having problems, too.
Junior Tami Elliott, who earned four All-American awards last year and is the only collegiate member on the U. S. National Team, sprained her left ankle during exercise three weeks ago. She has not competed in Fullerton's last two meets, but a college spokesman said she will probably be ready for the UCLA Invitational. Her best all-around score this year is 38.05, and in her specialty, the uneven bars, she has scored 9.70.
Another Star Doubtful
And Fullerton junior Roni Barrios, who scored a 38.20 in all-around at the NCAA regionals last year, is ailing and probably will not compete Saturday, a spokesman said.
The injuries may not slow Fullerton though.
"I've seen girls at competitions in obvious pain," Tomlinson said. "But when it was time for their event, they drop their ice packs and perform."
Uninjured and healthy is junior Taunia Rogers who holds the Fullerton record score in the all-around (38.25).
Though UCLA has no superstars, to counter Fullerton the Bruins have senior co-captain Janet Ferrari, 5-2, 120 pounds. "She's probably the hardest working, most aggressive athlete I've coached in 12 years," Tomlinson said, adding that Ferrari has shown consistent improvement in agility and artistry, the skills needed to master the different events.
Ferrari, whose best all-around score (37.20) was against Fullerton last year, had her best showing this year at Utah in January, scoring 36.50 all-around and posting season-high marks on the uneven bars (9.20) and the balance beam (9.05).
Difference of Opinion
"She feels she's best at the vault, but I think her strength is on the floor exercises," Tomlinson said. Ferrari's high scores on the vault (9.20) and floor exercises (9.45) were made during the Jan. 19 Arizona meet. "Her dance movements (in floor exercises) may not be the most elegant but her power is unbelievable."
Balance-beam rules demand that the gymnast use the entire length of the narrow 16-foot, 3-inch beam. "Ferrari has a composed balance-beam routine," the coach said. "Her leaps need a little work and she needs more flexibility in her splits, but she has good, solid turns. Nine times out of 10 she shows real grace and no wobble."
A wobble, a sign of lack of control, costs a minimum of three-tenths of a point on the gymnast's total score if a judge decides it shows lack of confidence.
If Ferrari continues to improve, Tomlinson is confident his freshman-dominated team will keep UCLA competitive. "They realize there's nothing to lose and everything to gain," he said.
The coach said 5-2, 102-pound freshman Shelley Nelson from San Jose has developed dexterity on the uneven bars. She scored a season high 9.0 at the Arizona State meet.
'Fear of Success'
But the pressure to achieve near perfection in competition has hampered Nelson. "It's kind of a fear of success thing," Tomlinson said. "Her whole bar routine meets the risk, originality and virtuosity requirements. But she's beginning to calm down."
Nelson has added a difficult aerial maneuver to her bar attack. In the midst of a giant swing she releases the upper bar and catches it while shifting hands, causing her body to violently twist right as she somersaults forward. It takes about two seconds. "It's a difficult trick," Tomlinson said. "Sometimes you catch it and sometimes you don't."
Freshman Pam Kodner, 5-1, 110 pounds, who joined the Bruins four weeks ago after getting permission from a St. Louis high school to graduate early, will add strength on the vault (scored a 9.0 at the Utah meet), the beam and floor exercises, Tomlinson said. In high school, Kodner won three Missouri state titles in U. S. Gymnastics Federation competition.
Her beam exercise includes a "trick" which gymnasts term a "split-jump punch front-somersault." Within 1.5 seconds, she springs up above the beam, does a mid-air split, brings her legs back together, lands on the beam and throws herself into a forward somersault. "It's fast and it's risky," said Tomlinson, adding that Kodner is capable of a 9.4 in this event.
Tomlinson said he will be counting on 5-2, 110-pound sophomore Cathy Cogan in the vault (9.0 season high), the uneven bars and the balance beam), even though "she's had a fear of falling while somersaulting backward on the beam, but she's going for it harder in workouts."
Cogan's season-high marks are on the balance beam (9.10). Were she to fall from the beam the judges would deduct half a point from her score.
"Look, after all the workouts, after all the repetitions and after all the crying," Tomlinson said, "these women try to maintain a certain outlook--'I'm either going to finish first in competition or I'm going to finish last. My concern is did I give it everything I had?' "
Two other Bruin freshmen, 5-6, 125-pound Caroline Lee and 5-2, 110-pound Tracee Yamada, will have to overcome collegiate inexperience and erratic performance as the team hopes for the regionals. "These girls have been competing since they were 8 or 9. They'll do the work," Tomlinson said.
This is Tomlinson's sixth year at UCLA as coach (35-15 in dual matches). Before his arrival the Bruins had never placed higher than ninth in national collegiate standings. In five seasons, Tomlinson's teams have twice finished in first place regionally, twice finished second in the nation.