Column: UCLA’s women’s gymnastics team wins a national title and brings out the best in the sport
After checking the scoreboard too often and not seeing the standings in the order they had hoped, members of UCLA’s women’s gymnastics team stopped looking up and instead looked within themselves.
One of the “Super Six” teams that advanced to the NCAA team finals last weekend in St. Louis, the Bruins trailed defending champion Oklahoma by 0.375 points on Saturday after performing on floor exercise and vault. Peeking at the standings was weakening their concentration.
“We got in trouble for looking halfway through, after vault. We were taking away from the team and our Bruins bubble,” said junior Katelyn Ohashi, who was shaken up in a car accident the night before the team traveled to St. Louis but still tied for the individual floor exercise title. “Basically we regrouped and got it together and made a commitment that we would stick together and it didn’t really matter at the end as long as we left everything out there on the floor.”
Their resolve renewed, they pulled out a season-best uneven bars performance. Led by redshirt senior Christine Peng-Peng Lee’s perfect 10, they closed the gap to .175 before the final event, the tricky balance beam. Kyla Ross and Lee were the final performers. “During beam I thought maybe second place and so I went up there and was just thinking about soaking up every second of it,” said Ohashi, who contributed a 9.95 to the team score. “We wanted to stick together and not look at the scores and let it get in our head or anything.”
Ross got a 9.9875. That left a chance for Lee, the individual beam champion. She needed a 9.975 for the Bruins to win and capped her career with another perfect score, giving UCLA its seventh NCAA title with 198.075 points, .0375 more than Oklahoma. This time lifting their eyes to the scoreboard lifted the Bruins’ hearts. “I saw her 10 and said, ‘What?’ ” Ohashi said. “It was so surreal.”
It was real. “It was epic,” coach Valorie Kondos Field said, drawing out the word “epic” to underscore the magnitude of the comeback.
Gymnastics has been in the news lately for horrifying reasons. Larry Nassar, the former physician for the U.S. women’s national and Olympic gymnastics teams and a physician at Michigan State, recently was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing girls who had been in his care. Girls conditioned to obey authority and do whatever it took to win — including starving themselves or becoming bulimic — submitted to his “treatments” on the advice of selfish, manipulative adults. Jordyn Wieber, one of the gold-medal-winning “Fierce Five” at the 2012 Olympics and a volunteer assistant coach at UCLA, is among more than 150 girls and women who testified about the perfidy of Nassar’s abuse.
But it’s important to draw a line between the sport and the corrupt people who condoned or ignored the abuse. “I am who I am today because of a lot of the things I’ve learned in gymnastics,” Ohashi said, a sentiment Kondos Field echoed.
“The sport’s not bad. It’s the people that were running the sport that were bad,” Kondos-Field said. “And so when reporters say, ‘I have a daughter, why would I put her in gymnastics?’ I go, ‘Why wouldn’t you put her in gymnastics?’ Look at the testimonies of those women. They spoke with strength, commitment to the truth, they spoke with clarity. They spoke with poise. Sometimes they got upset and sometimes they broke down but they never lost their poise or their composure. Where do you think they learned that? In gymnastics. That’s where they learned that. How to be tough as nails, how to face fear, and how to be your best in that moment. They learned that in this sport.
“This sport’s amazing. And the people that were accountable are now gone. It’s the best time in the world to put your daughter or your son in gymnastics.”
Kondos Field praised Ohashi’s spirit and resilience. “She looks at things from a perspective of goodness and light and appreciation that allows her to be able to get into a horrific car accident the day before we leave for the national championships and compete back-to-back days brilliantly,” Kondos Field said.
Ohashi, who competed on the U.S. national team until shoulder injuries derailed her, said in her blog she was never sexually assaulted. However, she suffered from body-image issues, a common problem in the sport. “I’ve been told I looked like I swallowed an elephant or a pig, whichever was more fitting that day,” she wrote in a series of posts about body shaming on her site, Behind the Madness. “I was compared to a bird that was too fat to lift itself off the ground.”
She has thrived at UCLA, where diverse classes opened her mind and her perspective. “In elite gymnastics I was surrounded by this bubble, that gymnastics was literally all I knew and I’d like to know about worldly issues,” she said. She still loves the sport, though, and that’s evident in every saucy pose and difficult move in her dynamic floor exercise routine to a Michael Jackson mix. It long ago went viral. “I don’t think gymnastics will forever be known as this sport that has an abusive culture because I hope from here on out it will start changing,” she said.
The Bruins’ joy, skill, and team ethic have helped change conversations about gymnastics from disdain to admiration. Ohashi will return to a team that Kondos-Field anticipates will be even deeper next season, and that should be a treat. “Hopefully next year as a senior I can lead to the best of my abilities and try and set a tone of ‘This is what we’re here for. This is what we came to do,’ ” said Ohashi, a survivor and a winner like her teammates.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
Go beyond the scoreboard
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