There are a few secrets surrounding the UCLA women’s gymnastics team on the eve of its season opener. The Bruins are one of the most intriguing squads in elite college gymnastics, loaded with talent and potential.
They’re ranked No. 4 in the nation in the preseason poll, and are the reigning Pac-12 champions. Their roster is headlined by two Olympic gold medalists, 2016 “Final Five” member Madison Kocian and 2012 “Fierce Five” member Kyla Ross, plus 2013 A&T American Cup champion Katelyn Ohashi.
Despite all the accolades and anticipation building around UCLA, coach Valorie Kondos Field is looking forward to seeing what her team will show against No. 17 Arkansas on Jan. 7 at Pauley Pavilion.
“Being fourth preseason is nice, but I really don’t pay attention to those things,” said Kondos Field, who has led the Bruins to six national titles since she started coaching them in 1991. “We’ve been practicing well, but it’s time for competition. They need to show what they can do. I think we’re going continue to build a swagger as the season goes on.
“Right now, we’re excited about our team, but we don’t have the swagger that you need to have. You’ve got to earn the swagger, and that comes through competing and showing you really are that good. We’re not there yet; at least I haven’t seen it yet. We need to be tested.”
The intensity of the season will not let up, as seven of the Bruins’ next nine opponents after the opener carry preseason rankings. Fans have already circled Jan. 15, as UCLA travels to Norman to face No. 1 Oklahoma.
The college gymnastics season is significant, running from January through the NCAA tournament in April.
Ohashi, a sophomore known for her electrifying and sassy floor routines, is also curious to see how UCLA’s potential manifests this season. The 2011 U.S. junior all-around champion was part of last year’s team, which reached the Super Six, but missed significant time due to a small fracture in her sternum.
Sitting out, and then learning how to manage college life and gymnastics, helped Ohashi mature. Kondos Field said this season’s Ohashi is poised and passionately vocal, making impressive leaps as a leader, gymnast and now a voracious consumer of TED Talks.
“I am starting to be really inspired by things, school is now actually something to look forward to,” said Ohashi, who was the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Week four times last season. “I have been given an opportunity to compete and learn, and I am not going to waste it. I learned that over the past year. I want to do it all.”
Freshman Olympians Kocian and Ross are also eager to see how they handle the grind, which is quite different from competing three to four times per year on the international elite circuit.
“I am really excited to start the season next weekend, because we have a very strong team and it has been really fun in the gym to be part of a large team,” said Kocian, who also earned up a silver medal on bars during the Rio Games. “I’ve found the gymnastics to be easier, because we’re training less, but school to be intense, so it is a little bit of adjustment.”
Kocian said UCLA’s team is close, and she enjoys training together on a long-term basis. The U.S. national team gymnasts, for example, train separately with private coaches, only coming together once a month for training camps, and the Olympic team was only together for the few weeks leading up to the Games. So it’s a team, but still broken into separate entities.
Being a college gymnast changes the dynamic, making the bonds more intense. There are four coaches, and everybody works together every day during the school year.
“We have 20 girls on the team, so that’s more than just five of us (on the Olympic team),” Kocian said. “It is a little bit different, you’re not one-on-one, but I think it is working out fine. We’re all adults, we know what we need to do, and what we need to accomplish every day. We focus on our goals.”
Kocian has been fighting bouts of fatigue, a yet-unidentified issue that has cropped up over the past few years. She’s hoping to stay healthy and strong over the season, probably only doing the all-around in select meets.
Kondos Field understands adjusting from the Olympics to college gymnastics and student-athlete life can be jarring. There is a long history of Olympians coming to UCLA to compete, and Kondos Field has learned how to handle things (“Fierce Fiver” Jordyn Wieber also works with the team now as a student assistant). The big deal is made by the outside world, she says, and not by the Bruins.
“We have never separated them by classes, not having freshmen moving luggage, or having non-scholarship kids do something else,” Kondos Field said. “You will never know who is non-scholarship or scholarship, freshman or senior, Olympians or elite.
“We all do everything, from moving luggage to helping the trainers, together. We build our culture through our community. We are one team — win or lose. They know that when we recruit them and when they come here.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.