By Blythe Lawrence | March 27, 2020, 4:53 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross compete on Feb. 23, 2020 in Los Angeles.

 

The matriculation of Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian onto UCLA’s women’s gymnastics team in 2016 was in itself a headline-worthy event. Never had an Olympic gold medalist in women’s gymnastics competed for an NCAA school, and overnight the Bruins had two.

As the first Olympic champions to partake in NCAA gymnastics, Ross, a member of the gold-medal winning “Fierce Five” team at the Olympic Games London 2012, and Kocian, one of the “Final Five” four years later in Rio, brought big routines and Olympic work ethic to a program known for infusing its high-level acrobatics with style and panache.

With a deeply talented 2020 class that included twins Anna and Grace Glenn, Felicia Hano, Gracie Kramer, Mercedez Sanchez, as well as redshirts Macy Toronjo and Nicki Shapiro, Ross and Kocian helped propel the Bruins to the 2018 NCAA title and top-five finishes every other year. 

Individually, they were stars in their own right: Kocian, who won an individual silver medal on bars in Rio and a world title in the event in 2015, consistently contributed on bars, beam and floor for the Bruins. Ross, whose stellar technique and confidence earned her the nickname “Kyla Boss,” racked up 22 perfect 10s in her collegiate career, tying her with Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols for fourth on the all-time 10s list, according to The Balance Beam Situation blog. In her career as an elite gymnast she won four individual medals at world championships, including two in the all-around.

 

Kyla Ross competes on Feb. 23, 2020 in Los Angeles. 

 

And though their senior campaign ended prematurely when the NCAA canceled the remainder of the season March 12 due to the coronavirus outbreak, both Ross and Kocian said they were satisfied with the year’s accomplishments, which included overcoming a fair share of problems even before fears about the virus began to take hold. 

“Even though we weren’t able to fight for a Pac-12 or NCAA championship this year, we grew so much throughout the season. We definitely didn’t have the start we wanted but we kept growing,” Ross said, referring to early losses to Oklahoma and Washington. “When it all came down and the season was over, we talked about it and we were just saying that when we met in September, we had to face so much adversity.”

The 2020 Bruins spent the early part of the year adapting after the departure of their beloved head coach, Valorie Kondos-Field, who retired in 2019 after 29 seasons leading the team. Assistant coach Jordyn Wieber, one of Ross’ 2012 Olympic teammates, left to become the head coach at Arkansas, and a new athletic trainer and strength coach joined the team. Though Kondos-Field’s longtime assistant Chris Waller took over, any coaching change comes with some turbulence, and the team took a while to gain its bearings.

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“As a senior you’re just hoping to enjoy your last year, and you know how everything is run. Coming into this year it was almost like we were all freshmen,” Ross said. “We had to learn a different style of coaching and how things were run. Personally the biggest thing was trying to live in the moment and not get caught up in all the senior stuff. I think I did a pretty good job of that and enjoying each and every meet. It was just hard hearing that was over and knowing there were so many laughs we didn’t get to have.”

In the days leading up to the cancellation, rumors swirled as the NCAA progressively tightened restrictions due to the spread of COVID-19. First was the news that the March 14 Senior Day meet against Bridgeport would be a closed event. A senior day with no fans? “We were like, ‘This is going to be interesting,’” Kocian recalled. Then they learned that Bridgeport wouldn’t be coming at all. 

Kocian and Ross were at home in the apartment they share with Hano when Hano came into the room and said, “I guess we’re done with gymnastics.” She’d seen the news that the season was cancelled on Twitter.

“We were all just pretty numb for the next few days,” Kocian said. It took a while to digest that the March 8 matchup against Cal, which UCLA won 197.900-196.725, would be their last competition in Pauley Pavilion. The team gathered for a senior celebration with family members who had made the trip for the Senior Day meet, then scattered for spring break. When classes resume at UCLA next week, they will be online only.

 

Madison Kocian looks on at a competition on Feb. 23, 2020 in Los Angeles. 

 

Kocian packed up her share of the apartment and returned home to Dallas, where she’s been keeping busy with puzzles and taking the family dog for walks. Ross is presently staying with her parents in Orange County. While the NCAA works out whether athletes will be given an extra year of eligibility, both are slowly adjusting to their new normal.

Would Kocian return if given the chance? “Right now I would lean towards no,” the 22-year-old said. Among her victories this season, Kocian counts pushing through a right shoulder injury incurred during the team’s first practice in September. She had surgery to repair a torn left labrum the summer after her freshman year and likely needs to have the right one repaired as well. 

“It was just another obstacle that I had to overcome, and it ended up just making me stronger,” she said. “It’s a lot to go through the season and put my body through that. And I’m definitely satisfied with my career and where I finished this year.”

After graduating with a degree in psychology, she plans to go to school to become a physician’s assistant.

Ross said that she’s wondered about having an extra year, but “since it hasn’t been put on the table, I haven’t made a decision.” 

“I consider myself a retired gymnast,” she added. “I feel like I’ve finished my gymnastics career, but maybe my mind would change.”

Ross, 23, is guaranteed to remain with the team while she finishes her degree in molecular, cell and developmental biology. She has already arranged with Waller to be UCLA’s student assistant coach in 2021 as she maps out her future.

“Being with 20 girls each year and being in that gym, I’m just super excited not to leave that yet,” she said. 

Blythe Lawrence has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.