UCLA’s underclassmen excel as gymnastics team honors seniors with home finale win
A reporter asked Chae Campbell the question, but the sophomore’s answer was meant for someone else.
“Norah,” Campbell said, turning toward teammate Norah Flatley after the UCLA senior had just competed in her final meet at Pauley Pavilion. “You’ve been amazing. … I love you so much.”
UCLA honored its seniors during their last home meet Saturday with the customary flowers, photos and video tributes. But the best celebration came in the form of standout performances from underclassmen who will define the next era of the celebrated program. Freshman Emma Malabuyo recorded her first 10 with a perfect score on beam, and Campbell earned her second 10 in three meets on floor en route to a career-high 39.725 in the all-around.
UCLA’s 197.7-point total was its second best of the season, trailing only the 198.05 from last weekend’s victory over California that was the team’s highest score since 2019.
Despite a rough regular season, the Bruins are where they thought they would be entering the postseason. Their season was delayed because of a COVID-19 pause and tension between coaches and gymnasts stemming from a preseason incident involving a teammate overshadowed their first meets, but UCLA enters next week’s Pac-12 Conference championships with three consecutive victories after outscoring UC Davis’ 193.975 on Saturday.
Improvements from key freshmen have fueled the recent comeback as the team’s top-ranked recruiting class adjusts to the rigors of college gymnastics, in which teams compete every week instead of every few months.
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“Just because our freshmen are of the highest caliber, world team members, Olympians and all that, they’re still freshmen,” coach Chris Waller said. “They’re still learning how this collegiate thing works week in, week out. It feels like each freshman has figured out what college gymnastics is about at different times.”
Freshmen have contributed 45.9% of UCLA’s competitive routines this year, led by Malabuyo and Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles. Chiles, who finished third in the all-around Saturday, has 32 competitive routines, the second most on the team. Malabuyo, an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo, competed 31 times this season, saving her best routine thus far for last.
The reigning Pac-12 specialist of the week improved on her 9.975 on beam last week to notch UCLA’s first perfect score on the event this season After the score flashed across the screen, Malabuyo made a guest appearance in front of the alumni band, conducting the group through the school fight song.
Campbell celebrated her 10 on floor by giving high-fives to the students sitting in the front row. The Bruins nearly had two perfect routines on floor, as Flatley set a career high with a 9.975 to lead off the event. It was her final routine at Pauley Pavilion, and the emotions of senior night were so raw that by her final pass, tears were welling in her eyes.
Waller said it was the best floor routine he has seen Flatley perform.
“It’s never about the scores for me,” Flatley said. “A 10 is obviously pretty and it looks nice, but it’s more about the emotions that come from the routines for me, and those emotions were filled high today.”
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The two-time U.S. national team member was one of seven seniors honored after the meet in a 30-minute ceremony. The class includes fifth-year seniors Pauline Tratz and Kendal Poston, the last links to UCLA’s 2018 NCAA championship.
Hopes for another national championship took a hit at the beginning of the season, but the Bruins are back on track.
“We never start the year the strongest, but we always climb our way up,” Flatley said. “We’re going to continue with that incline and just put in that work every day in the gym and lean on each other and believe in each other and believe in ourselves that we can be natty champs.”
Campbell, seated two seats to Flatley’s left, punctuated the senior’s message with a snap of her fingers.
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