Column: Emily Lee’s pressure-defying excellence helping UCLA gymnastics flourish

UCLA's Emily Lee competes on the balance beam in the NCAA regionals at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night.
(Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

UCLA sophomore Emily Lee is the gymnastics version of a baseball leadoff batter.

When she’s the Bruins’ first competitor in any of the four events, her job is to set the tone. To be calm, so her teammates will feel confident. To inspire them, so they’ll follow her example and maybe surpass it.

Not everyone has the steady nerves needed to handle that role, but Lee regularly knocked it out of the park for the No. 4-ranked Bruins this season by earning eight scores of 9.9 or higher in the leadoff spot. She earned six of those scores on the perilous balance beam, a make-or-break event.


“When you’re on the front end, you need a good routine. You need to not make the rest of the lineup nervous. Someone who’s really solid. I can do that,” the Los Gatos native said. “But the pressure on the back end, if someone messes up in the beginning, you have that pressure of, ‘Oh my God, I can’t mess up.’

UCLA gymnastics moved one step closer to ending its nationals drought by winning its NCAA regional semifinal Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.

March 30, 2023

“I never have that pressure. It’s kind of nice. You get it over with sooner and then you get to cheer on the rest of your teammates. Wherever my team needs me to go, I’ll go.”

But leading off also requires a sacrifice Lee willingly makes.

Judges in subjective sports like gymnastics and figure skating tend to hold back on awarding high scores to the first few competitors, leaving themselves room to give top scores to those who compete later. It’s not fair, but it’s an acknowledged part of gymnastics life.

Lee has been able to shrug that off in the name of launching her team to solid starts, as she did in scoring a 9.90 leading off on balance beam Thursday in the NCAA regional semifinal at a lively Pauley Pavilion. Although her teammates surpassed her leadoff 9.80 on floor exercise and her score didn’t count, she was part of an impressive postseason effort. The Bruins finished atop the four-team field Thursday with 198.275 points, propelling them into Saturday’s regional final against Utah, Washington and Missouri. The top two teams on Saturday will advance to the national finals in Fort Worth.

Emily Lee vaults for UCLA gymnastics at the NCAA Los Angeles Regional
Emily Lee competes on vault for UCLA gymnastics at the NCAA Los Angeles Regional.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“Your job is to box the judges in. If you have a really good routine you might get scored a little lower, but your teammates’ scores will be boosted because of you. That’s my job,” said Lee, who also scored 9.85 Thursday as the second Bruin on vault and 9.80 as the second Bruin on the uneven bars. “Yes, I might be sacrificing the chance to get 10s, but then maybe my teammate will get a 10. And that’s kind of like my 10 too. Set them up for success.”


Lee’s success this season has been remarkable, a well-deserved reward for her painful recovery from the ruptured left achilles tendon she suffered in 2021 at the trials for the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Lee had lived with pain and soreness in her leg for a while but hoped to push through the discomfort and fulfill her dream of competing at the trials. She almost made it to the end: She was the last performer in the last event, floor exercise, when she dropped abruptly to the floor at the end of a tumbling pass.

First, she cried. It took a few minutes for her mind to accept what her body was telling her.

“I knew once I got up. Yeah, it’s gone. It’s done. Not much hope left,” said Lee, a three-time member of the U.S. national team. “That night, I kind of felt relieved. It was going to happen eventually. It’s over now. I can start my rehab.

Josh Lim is UCLA’s gymnastics super fan. The third-year student attends home meets, studies the gymnasts’ routines and is the club team’s president.

March 28, 2023

“I was luckier than most. I got to go to Olympic trials and experience the opportunity almost no one gets to do. I wouldn’t take it back. If I had to do it again, I would. I just felt really lucky.”

She rehabbed during her freshman year, diving into her difficult classes as a physiological science major but lending support at practices and some meets.


“I think she’s always had this sort of hard-working mentality, so I knew she would be able to come back,” Emma Malabuyo said. “But just seeing her thrive this season, especially after her injury, and not only doing one event — she’s doing everything. That really blew me away, and I think that inspires a lot of people out there too.”

Lee’s training hit a bump when she resumed tumbling because it brought back thoughts of her injury. But her fears quickly vanished.

“Meet by meet her confidence has just blossomed, and it’s been amazing to see her confidence grow and her love for gymnastics and our team grow through that process,” coach Janelle McDonald said. “She’s absolutely one of the rock-solid competitors on our team and can help us kind of have endless goals as far as what we can accomplish as a team.”

After missing the NCAA championships last season by a mere 0.025, the Bruins adopted the phrase “No Regrets” as their mantra this week. They had no reason for misgivings Thursday, thanks to stellar efforts from Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles — who had the top all-around score of 39.750 — a team-best 9.975 from freshman Selena Harris on beam, and the return from injury of Brooklyn Moors, who competed on vault and floor exercise. The Bruins are back in contention for a national title again, a sweet return after the tension last season that led to the resignation of then-coach Chris Waller.

UCLA's Emily Lee competes during a meet against Oregon State on Jan. 29.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Controversy over the way Waller and his staff dealt with a preseason incident involving racist language used by a former UCLA gymnast splintered the team. McDonald has helped them heal, bringing them close again — and bringing the best out of a talented group. Because of that, Lee said a few days ago this season would be considered triumphant no matter what happens in the regionals or beyond.

“It’s already a success in a lot of ways. I mean, last year we were coming from a broken culture. We were coming from no trust, nothing really bonding us together,” Lee said. “Versus this year, we’re fully bonded. We want to win and we’ll do everything we can to help each other succeed in and out of the gym.”


The tone she sets as the leadoff batter goes a long way toward making that happen.