For UCLA gymnastics team, exhibition before a crowd feels like ‘back to normal’

UCLA gymnast Norah Flatley high-fives a fan during an exhibition at Pauley Pavilion on Friday night.
UCLA gymnast Norah Flatley celebrates with fans during an exhibition at Pauley Pavilion on Friday night.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Compared with sellouts of past seasons, the crowd of about 1,000 at Pauley Pavilion for UCLA’s Meet the Bruins exhibition Friday night was minuscule. But after competing in front of silent cardboard cutouts last season, any crowd noise not generated by a machine was a welcome roar.

“It felt like things were back to normal,” senior Norah Flatley said. “After all this crazy COVID stuff, it just gives you a sense of normalcy.”

Flatley’s Gold team, which also included senior Margzetta Frazier, Washington transfer Katie McNamara and freshman Alexis Jeffrey, won 8-7 in a head-to-head competition against a Blue squad that featured freshmen Jordan Chiles, Ana Padurariu and Emma Malabuyo. But the competition on the floor, which was judged by special guests UCLA defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight, former UCLA softball player Jen Schroeder and former UCLA gymnast Ariana Berlin, was secondary to who was sitting in the stands.

UCLA's Katie McNamara competes on the balance beam with a leg in front and a leg behind while in mid-air.
UCLA’s Katie McNamara competes on the balance beam during an exhibition at Pauley Pavilion on Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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UCLA's Alexis Jeffrey in midair while looking at a bar with her arms in front of her on the uneven bars.
UCLA’s Alexis Jeffrey performs on the uneven bars at Pauley Pavilion.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Groups of young gymnasts descended the stairs with their parents. They held up “Go Blue” and “Go Gold” signs and waved blue and gold pompoms. The alumni band played. Chiles, who joined the team less than a week ago after participating in Simone Biles’ post-Olympic tour, fell right into rhythm as a Bruin by running in front of the fans after competing on bars and drawing some of the loudest cheers of the night.

“Being able to actually see people in the crowd and being able to interact with them, that was a huge, huge thing,” the Olympic silver medalist said. “And it definitely helps us. … That’s what it’s all about: making sure that the crowd is involved with what we do.”

Friday’s event was the team’s last live tune-up before the Bruins’ season debut Jan. 8 at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim. Coach Chris Waller hopes there will be thousands of fans in attendance.

For a team that regularly hosts some of the largest Pauley Pavilion crowds, an empty arena was a drastic adjustment last season. The Bruins, who are eighth in the preseason national coaches poll, were giddy with excitement anticipating the return of fans. But senior Kendal Poston, who used additional eligibility from the COVID-19 pandemic for a fifth season, acknowledged she was nervous.

VIDEO | 04:10
UCLA gymnastics puts on a show during exhibition

The UCLA gymnastics team held it’s first event of the new season during an exhibition at Pauley Pavilion on Friday night.

“It is an adjustment whether you’re doing your skills by yourself and whether you’re doing your skills in front of an audience,” she said. “And something as simple as making sure you’re interacting with the audience is something we’re going to have to make sure we bring back.”

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Before the pandemic, UCLA gymnasts ran up down the aisles high-fiving fans after successful routines and led the student section in choreographed dance breaks.

The sideline routines require practice just like tumbling passes and handstands, especially to shake off last season’s quarantine habits. To get used to interacting with fans again, the Bruins invited spectators to their practice gym.

At first, gymnasts met the sight of strangers with curious looks. They spent last season interacting only with their masked teammates and coaches. They didn’t even see other students on campus.

UCLA's Jordan Chiles raises her fists and smiles after her routine on the balance beam.
UCLA’s Jordan Chiles celebrates after her routine on the balance beam.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA gymnasts run next to the seating area after competing on the vault.
UCLA gymnasts celebrate after competing on the vault during an exhibition at Pauley Pavilion.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The pandemic backdrop “dramatically muted any joy” the team mustered up last season, Waller said. But as each week passed during fall training and the pandemic waned, Waller sensed a rising motivation among the athletes.

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While reintroducing themselves to fans, the Bruins hoped to show the gratitude and resilience learned through the last year.

“You might not always come out on top, but how you respond to it, how you come back from it is 100 times more important than where you finish,” Poston said before the meet. “I hope that that can be where the audience sees us coming from: authentically giving our best after a very tough year.”

In the gym, UCLA is coming off an uncharacteristic down season. With most of the Bruins’ anticipated freshman class pursuing the Olympics, the short-handed team missed the NCAA championships as a team for the first time since 2006. UCLA didn’t win an individual NCAA title for the first time since 2014.

UCLA’s basketball game against North Carolina on Saturday in Las Vegas has been canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the Bruins’ program.

But enthusiasm around the program didn’t dampen. On Friday, young kids lined up on the side of the floor for autographs and pictures with gymnasts after the meet. One 12-year-old girl told sophomore Chae Campbell that it was her first UCLA meet.

As she signed an autograph, Campbell, who competed at the NCAA championship in the all-around last season but didn’t perform Friday because of back pain, asked whether the girl was going to be a Bruin one day.

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“Oh, yes,” she said while flashing two thumbs up.