This was not the storybook ending the UCLA gymnastics team wanted. The one it worked for all season in practices and showed potential of achieving in competition.
The defending champion Bruins finished third in the national championship meet Saturday with a score of 197.5375, capping coach Valorie Kondos Field’s final season. A year after being runner-up to the Bruins by .0375 points, Oklahoma won the championship, scoring 198.3375, and Louisiana State placed second, scoring 197.8250.
There was no repeat title for UCLA. No final victory to send off the legendary coach.
The Bruins made uncharacteristic mistakes through the first two rotations. Madison Kocian and Katelyn Ohashi wavered on beam, and several Bruins struggled to stick landings on their tumbling passes on floor. Only Kyla Ross and Ohashi scored 9.9 or better in the rotation, as the Bruins earned a season-low score of 49.3 on what had been their best rotation all season.
Still, Kondos Field was proud of her team.
“I would never base our success on solely winning the national championship,” she said. “We showed up today, and we competed hard. And the mistakes that they made, they made from going hard, not holding back.”
Halfway through the championship, UCLA was in third, trailing Oklahoma by .375 points.
Last year, a comeback victory behind a 10 on beam from Christine Peng-Peng Lee erased early stumbles and gave UCLA the national championship. This year, the Bruins weren’t so lucky.
Even after the disappointing floor performance, the team did not despair.
“We remember why we do it,” Ohashi said. “It’s not about the winning, it’s not about the first place, it’s about going out with no regrets, and that’s exactly what we did.”
The gymnasts huddled after vault and roared together. Their hugs between performances were tighter, lasted longer, as the team rebounded with a score of 49.425 on the rotation.
And Kondos Field kept dancing.
As the Bruins finished warming up on floor before the meet, they gathered in the corner, beckoned by a cheering section of fans. They waved their arms side to side in sync to the music, as the fans in the stands, team parents and alumni among them, cheered and waved back.
Ohashi blew a kiss to the crowd with both hands after her final floor routine. Nia Dennis sang as the Bruins prepared for their final rotation, uneven bars, and a smiling Ohashi watched the team compete from behind a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses.
“Our default is joy, and appreciation and gratitude for the fact that we get to do gymnastics,” Kondos Field said. “We got to be here together today and compete for another national championship title. That was awesome. And they celebrated that.”
UCLA scored 49.425 on the uneven bars. As the rotation stretched on, more eyes grew red. The Bruins grew quieter; their hugs after routines lasted longer. But they still competed, with Ross’ near-flawless, 9.95 routine and perfect landing, officially finishing the season, and Kondos Field’s coaching career.
Once they were done, they huddled by the uneven bars, and Kondos Field gave one final speech. Then, she moved through the circle and hugged each one, kissed some on the cheek.
“I just was able to look them all in the eye and say I had no regrets,” Kondos Field said. “Thank you.”
No eyes were dry now, but UCLA still cheered on Louisiana State as it finished performing on floor. The Bruins clapped together for the other team, and Kondos Field walked over to the vault runway to share a long hug with K.J. Kindler, congratulating Oklahoma on the championship.
When she returned, the Bruins gathered themselves for one final team dance, to “Cupid Shuffle,” moving in unison, smiling. Kondos Field snapped her fingers behind them.
They did not win. But they handled defeat with grace.
And that takes even more strength. Perhaps that is an even better send-off for the coach who taught her gymnasts to savor joy as much as victories.