UCLA gymnastics determined to ‘celebrate every moment’ amid unusual season

UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis takes part in a team practice session on Jan. 12.
UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis said it was a “bit nerve-racking” to resume practice after the COVID-19 pandemic limited team training opportunities.
(Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)

Nia Dennis was on her way to practice when a text message stopped the UCLA gymnast in her tracks.

Health officials cautioned the UCLA gymnastics team against practicing that day. The Bruins had a positive COVID-19 case. It was their last day of practice before a two-week break for Christmas.

“It was kind of like a what’s-going-on moment,” the senior said as teammates grappled with whether it was safe to return home to their families and what it meant with the team’s season opener just weeks away.

The year had provided many trials already, but that day in December was the “peak struggle,” coach Chris Waller said. The Bruins turned it into a way to reexamine what peak success would look like.


“The team really took into its own hands the idea that we get to do this,” Waller said. “We’re going to be grateful for what we can do and celebrate every moment we have together.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed almost all aspects of UCLA’s training regimen as the team nears its season opener Saturday against Arizona State, but it also reinforced the Bruins’ commitment to training with joy and gratitude.

Instead of the normal 10-day break between the NCAA championships and the beginning of offseason training, UCLA had a six-month gap before beginning fall practices. The Bruins, who were ranked seventh in the preseason poll, didn’t begin practice until Oct. 12 because of strict public health guidelines in California.

Defending national champion Oklahoma began on Sept. 22. Pac-12 rival Utah started on Sept. 25. No. 1-ranked Florida has been training since Sept. 21.

The playing field is “a little uneven,” Waller said, but returning to the gym and working with the team again at long last reminded the coach of why he does it all in the first place.

UCLA gymnastics coach Chris Waller gives encouragement during a team practice session on Jan. 8, 2021.
(Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)

Returning was scary for Dennis. Like her teammates, the senior whose Beyoncé-inspired floor routine achieved internet fame last season had limited training opportunities during the pandemic that closed many gyms. She is also returning from shoulder surgery and hadn’t done gymnastics since March when the Bruins resumed practice in October.

“It was a little bit nerve-wracking,” Dennis said, “but at the end of the day, we know how to do gymnastics. We know how to do our skills; we’ve been doing it our entire life. So it’s all muscle memory.”

Even after returning, the Bruins practiced sporadically. They started at three days a week, two hours a day and ramped up to daily sessions. They also took a five-day break for Thanksgiving and a 19-day break for Christmas. The holiday break was extended in part to allow gymnasts who flew home to quarantine upon their return to campus.

Waller knows the Bruins are behind in their training with all the interruptions. While the gymnasts impressed the second-year coach with their progress after returning from the long holiday break, Waller recognized that reaching peak endurance on floor and building depth in the lineup would take time.

UCLA freshman gymnast Chae Campbell takes part in a team practice session.
UCLA freshman gymnast Chae Campbell is looking forward to the first meet of the season, even if it’s only to hear the roar of the fans watching remotely.
(Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)

Now is about checking egos, Waller said. The coaching staff will not sacrifice safety to stuff a difficult skill into an early-season routine or put a star into the lineup if she is not ready.

“It’s just going to take a little bit longer for us to be at our best,” Waller said. “We need to be at our best when our best is needed. That’s the end of the season.”

Even thinking about the end of the season, which is expected to culminate in April at the NCAA championships, seems far-fetched when the Bruins haven’t even started.

The first meet in Pauley Pavilion will feel foreign in many ways. After averaging 8,140 fans at home meets during the last three years, the Bruins will compete in front of cardboard cutouts. They can’t hug each other after routines. They aren’t sure how they’ll celebrate yet, but Waller is confident the team will maintain its high energy.


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Freshman Chae Campbell has long dreamed of experiencing the energy of a UCLA meet firsthand. The two-time junior Olympic team member knows of the famous Bruins “floor party” that can bring sold-out crowds to their feet. While fans won’t be dancing in Pauley Pavilion this year, the freshman hopes to give them a reason to cheer from home.

“I have no doubt that [at the first meet], we’ll be able to turn it on and give the UCLA Bruin performance that everyone knows and loves,” Campbell said. “This team is just so good at adapting by now. We’re just relentless.”