Former UCLA gymnast Mercedez Sanchez gets the perfect homecoming
Every eye in Pauley Pavilion turned toward Mercedez Sanchez when the San Jose State gymnast began her bar routine.
Teammates cheered as she caught the high bar on a sky-high release skill. The applause grew louder when she transitioned to the low bar as UCLA’s gymnasts joined in. Like Sanchez, whose collegiate career started at UCLA, the Bruins had waited for this moment.
Sanchez’s competitive debut in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday lived up to the hype when she stuck her dismount. Every coach and gymnast on the floor, no matter which shade of blue and gold they were wearing, broke out in cheers.
It was a long-awaited bright spot in a year that featured heartbreak and tragedy for Sanchez. Last March, her original senior day was spoiled by the COVID-19 pandemic. In November, her 2-year-old brother Liam died of cancer.
Mercedez Sanchez is trying to work her way into the rotation on the UCLA gymnastics team. For inspiration, she need only look at her baby brother.
“If anyone deserved to have something good happen right now in their lives, it was her,” San Jose State coach Joanne Bowers said.
During her four-year UCLA career, Sanchez performed only a limited number of exhibition routines, never in a competition. The Bruins were stacked with talent and the lineup was tough to crack.
In her return, she competed on bars and beam for San Jose State, scoring a 9.75 and 9.675, respectively, and was honored during UCLA’s senior day celebration. It made up for the opportunity that was canceled exactly one year and one day before.
“It was something truly amazing,” Sanchez said. “What are the odds, you know?”
Sanchez was one of nine UCLA seniors scheduled to compete in last year’s home finale against Bridgeport. It would have been the first time she performed at a meet in one of six competitive positions on an event. The whole team was excited for it.
Having to cancel was devastating.
Despite the setback, Sanchez wasn’t done with gymnastics. The Agoura Hills native entered the transfer portal as a graduate student hoping to study sports psychology.
San Jose State fit the bill academically through its kinesiology department that has a sports studies program. In the gym, the Spartans weren’t going to have any seniors and Bowers was looking for transfers who could add leadership.
It was a perfect match.
Once the team began training together in late October — a delayed start because of local public health guidelines — Sanchez grew close to her new teammates. She moved into a house with three sophomores. When she saw freshmen struggling, Sanchez offered encouragement without being prompted.
Sanchez left in November when her brother fell ill. Liam was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2019 and went through five rounds of chemotherapy, but had been doing well for months. He underwent two brain surgeries before he died.
Sanchez grieved with her family over the holidays and returned to San Jose State in January. Another hurdle came when she tested positive for the coronavirus. She had to isolate.
When she was in Southern California, Sanchez considered staying home. Sitting in an insolation hotel, she reflected on her goals for the season. Sanchez returned to the gym and “was on such a mission,” Bowers said.
“I just thought back to who my brother was and how much of a fighter he was,” Sanchez said. “I wanted to fight for him and keep pushing myself in honor of him.”
Sanchez keeps her brother’s memory close with a necklace containing his ashes. A coach holds it when she competes.
The meeting of her old and new teams brought the people who supported Sanchez during her brother’s treatment together with those who helped her through his death. Her Bruins family welcomed her back to Pauley Pavilion with a senior sash and a balloon. She received flowers along with UCLA’s senior class, volunteer assistant coach Kyla Ross, who was a senior last year, and the team’s student-trainer.
The homecoming felt familiar, but also strange. It seemed backwards to come out of the visiting locker room and march out from the opposite side of the arena. Her former teammates still cheered when she was introduced before the meet.
“Mercedez is someone who really embodies what UCLA is about,” UCLA senior Kendal Poston said. “I never saw her not working hard, giving 110%. … She was such a light to this team and I know she is such a light at San Jose State.”
The UCLA gymnastics team closed the home portion of its schedule with a victory over San Jose State on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
Sanchez shines for the Spartans on bars and beam, where she still performs with the unique flair UCLA made famous. The Spartans are taking notes.
“It really helps us when we’re trying to get our team to realize that’s what’s going to separate us from some of the teams that can just do the 10.0 start value versus perform it,” Bowers said.
Sanchez “truly dances on beam,” the coach added. She works across the event with an easy rhythm and effortless smile. Her tumbling skills are punctuated by poses that show her flexibility.
On Saturday, Sanchez watched two teammates fall off the beam to start the rotation. She was competing last. While waiting for her turn, she held her necklace with Liam’s ashes. This moment was for him as much as for her.
“I got to be in Pauley. That was my dream,” Sanchez said. “And my dream was also to compete for my brother and I got to have a piece of him there with me.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.