UCLA gymnastics finds support and triumph amid tumultuous time for program
Fans holding posters with the words “They deserve better” painted in black lettering awaited their entrance into Pauley Pavilion to watch UCLA gymnastics for the first time in nearly 700 days.
When walking onto the floor where the Bruins were warming up for their competition against Arizona on Sunday afternoon, there was a sense of levity that was palpable.
Whether it was J Balvin’s “Que Calor” or SchoolBoy Q’s “Collard Greens” that rang through the sound system of Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins seemingly switched their focus and hit pause on the strife that swept through the program during the past three months and reached a tipping point last week.
“Our motto right now is resilience,” said senior Norah Flatley. “Whatever is thrown at us, we’re strong enough to get through. When we go into the gym, we leave whatever’s going on outside at the door and we focus on our gymnastics so that we can train safely and properly.”
Chris Waller looked poised to continue UCLA gymnastics’ legacy of success when he became head coach in 2019. It hasn’t all gone according to plan.
After opening the season in Minnesota with the lowest team score in seven years, UCLA earned its first top finish of the season with a team score of 196.400, edging the Wildcats by 1.275 points.
Freshman Jordan Chiles, sophomore Chae Campbell and Flatley were the breakout contributors during Sunday’s meet. Chiles and Campbell owned the highest marks of the day, with 9.9 scores on the uneven bars and vault, respectively.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCLA gymnastics has been without a resounding eight-clap in Pauley Pavilion. Feet shuffling into the various rows of seats and signage enforcing the use of masks was a welcomed sight for many in the program.
“It was my first time [performing in front of a home crowd] and I was very excited,” said freshman Emma Malabuyo. “I saw my family in the stands and my friends, teammates, everybody was here with me. Just feeling all that support and love made me feel really good and so happy to compete today.”
The team’s struggles of the past two years — a canceled 2020 season, a depleted roster due to the summer Olympics in 2021 — are far behind them.
A UCLA gymnast was accused of repeatedly singing a racial slur. Her teammates were later accused of bullying her and forcing her out. Now the Bruins are working to recover.
This year, however, some UCLA gymnasts told The Times they are struggling to overcome what they see as a lack of support from the athletic department following racial slurs made by a teammate.
Flatley and senior Margzetta Frazier, who did not participate in Sunday’s meet because of a broken foot, have been outspoken with their concerns about the future of the program.
UCLA coach Chris Waller focused primarily on changing the trajectory of the season with a win. The Bruins thrived in front of home fans who cheered and danced along with the gymnasts during their floor routines.
Now the Bruins say they will work to build on their win Sunday.
“We have these breakout moments that have happened throughout the week and those are very encouraging,” Waller said. “I can feel at the end of the day when we huddle up that people sensed them as well. Those other moments where we’re making mistakes, it’s just little mental errors. We have an opportunity this week to get back to the gym, and it’s not just physical but mentally figuring out what little things need to be tweaked.”
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