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‘The ultimate Bruin’: How UCLA gymnastics helped lift Chae Campbell to NCAA championships

UCLA's Chae Campbell smiles at teammates
UCLA’s Chae Campbell smiles at teammates during the Pac-12 Championships.
(Bryan Byerly / Pac-12 Conference)

When Chae Campbell tumbles across the floor and sticks double back tucks, fans see one of UCLA’s rising stars. The freshman’s tumbling is powerful. Her leaps are graceful. Her dance is captivating.

But mom always knows best, so Leila Campbell is fixated on something else when her daughter competes. It’s Campbell’s smile.

“I see that she’s happy,” Leila said.

Competing on a team for the first time in her gymnastics career, Chae Campbell is thriving in UCLA’s team-first environment. She will finish an impressive freshman season at the NCAA championships on Friday in Fort Worth, Texas, where she qualified as an individual in the all-around. Campbell, senior Nia Dennis and junior Margzetta Frazier made the cut as individuals and will compete in the second session at 3 p.m. PDT on ESPN2.

It’s the first time since 2006 that the Bruins didn’t advance to nationals as a team, but they have three representatives who show just how far a team’s support can take athletes who were accustomed to competing alone.

“If you can give yourself to your team and you do your work, it’s just freeing,” UCLA head coach Chris Waller said. “It feels like you’re flying with the team putting the wind underneath your wings.”

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Being on a team was intimidating for Campbell at first. Even competing in practice meets made her nervous. She felt terrible when she fell on bars during the season opener in the leadoff position. The mistake could hurt UCLA’s team score, she thought.

Instead, the Bruins rallied behind their freshman. UCLA responded with five straight successful routines that erased Campbell’s fall from the score sheet.

Three months later, Campbell, now the Pac-12 freshman/newcomer of the year and the first UCLA freshman to win an individual conference title since Kyla Ross, can chuckle at the mishap. It led to one of her favorite moments of the season.

No, it’s not the title-winning performances that stick with Campbell. It was watching junior Sara Taubman compete for the first time and step up after Campbell’s fall.

For a long-time individual competitor, it showed just what the Bruins could achieve together.

“You hear a lot [that] a lot of people regain their joy for gymnastics [in college],” said Campbell, the Pac-12 co-floor champion. “To experience it for myself was something really special.”

Many top female gymnasts have a tortured relationship with the sport. Olympic dreams begin early and a simple weekend class intended to burn off some energy quickly turns into 40 hours of training a week. Coaches can be abusive. Training is backbreaking.

UCLA's Chae Campbell flips into the air in a straight line
UCLA’s Chae Campbell competes on the beam during competition against BYU at Pauley Pavillion.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Campbell’s experience in the sport was not as tumultuous as some of her peers’, although it was strained at times. The 5-foot-7 gymnast always stuck out in a sport where short, slim body types generally prevail. Her height was a reason she retired from Olympic-level gymnastics, where the bars are set at a specific height and distance and Campbell had to contort her body in different ways to navigate the close quarters.

The other reason was a severe knee injury suffered in 2017 while training for the national championships. She tore multiple ligaments, including the posterior cruciate ligament, and fractured her tibia.

While recovering, she evaluated what she wanted out of her gymnastics career. No more chasing a far-fetched Olympic dream. She wanted to re-dedicate herself to the goal she first imagined at 8 years old: attending UCLA.

Campbell was so focused on UCLA that she didn’t reply to recruiting letters from any other school. UCLA was the only campus she visited.

After Campbell won the U.S. junior vault title as an elite gymnast in 2016 and was named to the junior Olympic national team twice, Waller had high hopes for her impact at UCLA. She’s exceeded all of them.

“In terms of building character, excellence, winning championships, academics, she’s really the ultimate Bruin,” Waller said.

The 19-year-old Campbell is already an example for older teammates like Dennis, the team’s two-time viral sensation. Dennis said she looks to Campbell on hard days, telling herself she needs to “get like Chae.”

“She’s seriously that good,” Dennis said.

UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis is a viral sensation, with a floor routine that tells a deeply personal story: “I know who I am as a woman and a Black woman at that.”

Nothing seems to rattle Campbell. After her scary fall on bars in the season opener, the Carrollton, Texas, native bounced back for hit routines on beam and floor and smiled through it all.

The daughter of a single mother, Campbell learned long ago not to stress over things out of her control.

Chae Campbell watched Leila return to college for a business degree while working a full-time job and raising a child. There was just no time to worry about the twists and turns of life, Leila said. Chae applies that lesson to her gymnastics, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She stayed positive, hoping and praying that there will be an opportunity for her to have a season when she gets to the NCAA,” Leila said. “Every day, it’s like nothing is guaranteed but just be thankful for whatever you do get.”

When Chae Campbell arrives in her home state for her NCAA championships debut, she won’t just be content with qualifying for the exclusive meet. With an upgraded vault that would boost her start value to 10.0 from 9.95, Campbell is “in it to win it,” she said.

Campbell is happy to gamble on the upgraded vault because she won’t be jeopardizing her team’s scores, but she is disappointed to be competing alone Friday. She is dedicating her performance to the teammates who lined the driveway off campus with signs and cheers as UCLA’s three national qualifiers left for the meet.

“When I go out there, I’m competing for my team,” Campbell said.

Without her whole team at nationals, Campbell will rotate with Louisiana State. The Tigers welcomed Campbell on Twitter this week, and LSU gymnast Haleigh Bryant posted the team has already learned Campbell’s floor routine. Campbell will have a new set of backup dancers ready.

LSU, the third-ranked team in the country, celebrates successful routines by passing around a stick crown. The jeweled piece of plastic goes to a gymnast after they nail a landing. On Friday, it could help mark a coronation for Campbell on a national stage.


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