The loss Friday night wasn’t the first of Chris Waller’s young tenure as the head coach of the UCLA gymnastics team, but it’s the first that hurt.
After three weeks of steady growth, the No. 3 Bruins stumbled to a 196.700-196.250 defeat to No. 11 Washington on Friday night at Pauley Pavilion as a disastrous three-fall beam rotation led to the team’s first Pac-12 Conference loss since February 2018.
UCLA had to count two falls toward its final beam score of 47.875, which was its lowest score in any event since 2011. It was the third time in five meets this season that the Bruins counted at least one fall in the event.
Since UCLA finished second in its season debut at the Collegiate Challenge, the Bruins’ team score improved a whole point in just three weeks, peaking at 197.575 in a victory Sunday at Stanford. The team was excelling at adjusting after meets and will go back to the drawing board after its lowest team score since the 2018 season opener, a streak of 34 meets.
“Feeling what happened with the team out on the floor, there are some key players on the team that are extremely, extremely motivated, and this is going to end up being fuel for what we do this coming week,” Waller said. “I am certain of it.”
The Bruins responded to their beam debacle with a 49.675 in the floor exercise, which included senior Gracie Kramer’s first career perfect 10, but Washington stayed solid with a 49.25 on beam to seal the meet.
Waller knew the Bruins needed the Huskies to make mistakes on the final event as UCLA trailed by 0.825 entering the final event. He instructed his team to perform as boldly as possible on floor, where UCLA is ranked first in the nation. He wanted his gymnasts to finish the meet with character. They delivered.
“That’s just the culture that we’ve set is that you perform until the very end,” Kramer said. “You’re on stage and I think the reason why we struggle in other events is because we don’t see it as a stage.”
After Kramer’s routine, which was UCLA’s first perfect 10 on floor this season, teammates enveloped Kramer in a group hug. The crowd flashed 10 fingers while chanting for the perfect score.
Kramer said she felt like she was going to cry even before her routine started. At that point, she knew it was going to be a good one, just as good as previous routines she felt earned perfect scores but didn’t get them. Finally seeing the validation on the scoreboard was just “icing on the cake,” the senior said.
“Not that a 10 changes you as a human being, but it is nice to see her get that validation from the score as well because Gracie will never take the shortcut to do her best,” Waller said. “She will always take another turn or ask how she can get better and she is just always trying to find a way to improve. So it was earned.”
Sophomore Norah Flatley was a steadying presence on beam and floor, scoring a career-high 9.95 on both events. She followed Kyla Ross’ 9.95 on beam, hoping to build up momentum after Kendal Poston fell in the No. 2 position. When the second half of the UCLA beam lineup unraveled with falls from Nicki Shapiro and Nia Dennis, it was Flatley again who corrected the ship as she led off on floor.
“I dedicated my performances to the legacy of this school,” Flatley said as UCLA celebrated the school’s centennial, “so that’s what really motivated me and pushed me to do the best performances I’ve done this season.”
Flatley had her best meet on just one day of practice this week after UCLA had a quick turnaround following a Sunday meet at Stanford. With just one practice, Flatley nailed a new tumbling series in her beam routine, adding a front aerial, back pike after the skills came to her in a dream.
A similar last-second change didn’t work with Dennis, who needed to modify her routine to include the required backward tumbling element and fell on her tumbling series.
“You change routines with one day of training, we know there is risk,” Waller said. “The reward will be we got another day under our belt at this point. It worked for Norah, it didn’t for Nia, but I’m confident that moving forward, both of them are going to keep getting stronger.”