Gratitude the Driving Force Behind Cal’s Success

California is having a historic season. It’s ranked No. 5 nationally and No. 1 in the Pac-12. Its bar lineup is the best in the country, and its second-place finish at the Pac-12 championship last weekend was its best-ever placement at that competition.

Such a streak of achievements would be impressive at any time, but it is especially so this year because California’s preseason was far from promising. As a result of COVID-19 protocols, the team wasn’t able to meet for the first time until Oct. 9, a six-week delay compared to previous years, which significantly shortened their preseason preparation and gave them little time to introduce the freshman class to college life. 

As the athletes arrived in Berkeley, head coaches Justin Howell and Liz Crandall-Howell, as well as assistant coach Janelle McDonald, were faced with the dual challenge of preparing their gymnasts both physically and mentally for a season that they themselves did not know if and how it would take place. 

They especially had to deal with the gymnasts’ varying levels of preparation, which depended on the different types of restrictions across the United States and the rest of the world. While senior Kyana George, for example, was able to train in Texas over the summer with relatively little disruption, junior Abi Solari from the United Kingdom, as well as the California-based athletes, had little to no access to training facilities.

The coaches’ primary concern, then, was to keep their athletes safe. “The No. 1 goal was to get everybody to a place where they felt comfortable and confident with the gymnastics that they were doing,” Crandall-Howell said. “So we really paid a lot of attention to their conditioning and basics first.”

Bars and beam came together first, after which the Golden Bears focused on developing power on vault and floor. Only once the gymnasts’ punching ability and form were back did they start twisting skills and training more difficult vaults. It was “a lot like bringing people back from an injury,” Crandall-Howell said.

Despite the difficulties, she has a positive recollection of the experience and believes that it allowed her and the other coaches to learn more about their athletes than they normally do, as they experimented with their gymnastics in new ways as opposed to simply using the repertoire of skills that the gymnasts bring from club. “It was a pretty cool challenge,” she said. “We didn’t put ourselves under the same time limit this year. We kind of went, ‘We’re going to do our best each day and take it as it comes.’” 

Mentally, too, the approach to both preseason and season was necessarily different this year, as it was important to keep the athletes motivated under uncertain circumstances. George, for one, struggled to decide what was best for her this year, coming close to opt out completely. “I do find most of my motivation from competing and performing in front of many people because that’s one of my favorite things about being able to do this sport,” she said. “Not knowing if we were going to have a season or not was really difficult for me.”

The coaches’ philosophy and relentless support, however, helped her a lot. For them, it was key to encourage their athletes to put things into perspective and to be grateful for being able to do the sport they love amidst a global pandemic. “I think that the biggest thing that has kept us going is staying connected to gratitude,” Crandall-Howell said.

“Every single week we don’t know what’s coming, so you have a choice to make,” she added. “You can be let down by all of the things that have been challenging, or you can be grateful that you got this day, that you got one more day to be together and to be able to improve. We get to have control of our improvement in this environment when there are so many things that are beyond our control.”

Senior Emi Watterson also noticed that the team’s new kind of gratitude changed its perspective of gymnastics and created a special bond between the athletes. “In previous years, a lot of times before a meet Liz would say, ‘Do this for the people who can’t,’” Watterson said. “But this year it was gratefulness for being able to do it because we didn’t know if we were going to have another season.”

Given the delayed preseason and with official competitions starting in January, the coaches were expecting a spike in the team’s performance after about a month. The Golden Bears, however, defied expectations, posting their first 197 of the season in their third meet and never failing to score below it after.

What, then, lies behind their success? 

The coaches and athletes agree that the team’s “one day better” motto, which applies to both training and competition days, has helped them build their confidence in their mission and in each other. “As a team, we really have been focusing [on the notion that] what’s happening in competition is not more important than what’s happening at practice,” George said. “And knowing that if we’re nailing it at practice, we’re going to nail that competition has helped us a lot in building our trust and our confidence level.”

“‘One day better’ isn’t something that you set aside for a meet day or only on a meet day,” Crandall-Howell added. “It’s a way of thinking, so all we’re asking them ever is to try and expect ‘one day better’ in some way, shape or form in their lives and the way that they process each day. And if they can lock into that and stay committed to that mission, we’re going to see the success as a by-product for their entire lives.”

The team has also embraced the principle that each routine adds to the whole, instead of potentially taking away from the team. This way, the coaches hope to prompt their athletes to produce positive energy no matter the outcome, as opposed to fearing messing up and jeopardizing a meet. By having this perspective, Crandall-Howell said, “every single person is adding their momentum, their energy, their positivity to the performance of the whole. If we think that way, we’re going to continue to have success.”

The depth that the team possesses this year has helped the athletes adopt this mindset, as they know that whatever may happen on competition day, any gymnast can be replaced and the substitute can produce equally good results.

California is benefiting from some important additions to its lineups this year, which increased the team’s depth. The most significant is freshman Andi Li, who week after week has grown into a strong all arounder and already boasts career highs of 9.900 or better on bars, beam and floor. 

Li had a slow start to her season because she tweaked both ankles just before Christmas, and the coaches were very careful with her comeback, as they wanted her to peak in time for postseason. However, Crandall-Howell said, it is already obvious that “she competes exactly the way she trains. She’s automatically at 39.500, so being able to start in the all around is a testament to how strong of a competitor she is and how far she’s going to go in her college career.”

Sophomore Nevaeh DeSouza, who was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last year, has also become a rock for the team both inside and outside of the gym. Not only does she boast season highs of 9.900 or better on all four apparatuses, but Crandall-Howell said, “she’s incredibly dependable, and she’s a person who many on our team go to if they need a shoulder or a listening ear.” 

“She’s very even in her emotions,” she added. “She’s positive all the time, but on a hard day she doesn’t overreact to a problem. She observes the problem and makes a very logical change to whatever she’s dealing with. I think that that’s a really important thing that she models for the rest of our team.”

Another athlete who has been a rock for California during all four of her years at Berkeley is George, who was recently nominated as one of the six finalists of the prestigious AAI award. “I’m so happy she’s getting that recognition because she’s just been such a consistent, amazing team member for her four years at Cal,” McDonald said. “Across her career she has been one of the top performers in the NCAA, year after year and meet after meet.”

George also boasts season highs of 9.900 or better on all four apparatuses, including a 9.975 on floor. There, she can show off both her elegance and her sassiness, as well as her “phenomenal personality,” Crandall-Howell said.

While George has always been consistent for California on floor, the Golden Bears have really come into their own on the event in 2021. Surprisingly, Crandall-Howell credits the challenging preseason for this result. “We spent more time on the basic skills in terms of doing double tucks or double pikes instead of full-ins,” she said. “Maxing out the details of the things we have has allowed us to spend more time on training more detailed things.”

Additionally, the team spent less time on floor choreography this year, either using the same choreography as last year, as in DeSouza’s case, quickening the process, as in George’s case, whose choreography took only 45 minutes to create, or allowing athletes to make up their own choreography, as with junior Milan Clausi.

Clausi is adept at choreographing, as she worked with her club mates in the past, so Crandall-Howell gave her the basic structure of the routine and entrusted her to come up with the details. “Milan changes a lot of her stuff herself,” she said. “I trust her to make it her own. I give her the skeleton and certain things that I’m particular about because it’s where the inspiration came from, but aside from that I say, ‘I know that it’s going to become yours.’”

Allowing her gymnasts to modify aspects of their choreography is important to Crandall-Howell, as it means that they are reaching a deeper understanding of the music and, as a result, they are making their routine their own. “Some of that performance has to do with empowering them to do what feels right to them,” she said.

While floor is perhaps the event on which California has shown most improvement this year, the Golden Bears have come to be known especially for their bar work, as they are ranked No. 1 in the country on that event and posted a huge 49.825, the leading score in the nation, against UCLA on Mar. 6. 

The athletes have no doubt that what makes them exceptional on bars is McDonald, who joined California in November 2018. “Janelle has done a really good job with us, focusing on making those handstands and even holding them for a couple of seconds and seeking the dismount and holding that for a couple of seconds,” Watterson said.

“When she came in, she made our bars from good to great, and she did that from being able to get to know us on a personal level,” George added. “I feel like she talks to us in different ways depending on how we react to coaching.”

McDonald herself, though, credits the team’s talent and work ethic for their success on bars. “We do have a lot of natural swinging, great bar athletes on our team, but I think what makes our team special is not exclusive to our bar lineup,” she said. “Our team shows up for each other and has a collective commitment to get ‘one day better’ each and every day. They’re working really hard, and I think that over time that builds that confidence to be able to go out there, showcase all the work they put into the gym and really bring out a great performance.”

On that outstanding day against UCLA, Watterson posted her first perfect 10.0 on bars, which was also Cal’s first perfect score on that event since Cindy Tom’s 10.0 in 1992 and the only third perfect 10.0 in school history. 

For Watterson, the path to perfection wasn’t easy. At the beginning of season she was dealing with an injury that prevented her from competing bars, and in her only other competitive bar routine this year she fell. 

On the day, she was really nervous, but McDonald helped her trust herself. “My confidence was hit pretty hard, and Janelle could tell that I was really nervous for this routine,” Watterson said. “Right before I went, she was like, ‘Whatever you’re thinking right now, just forget it. Have fun, remember who you are, remember you’ve done amazing on this event previously. Just swing, just enjoy yourself.’ I think that was a huge contributor.”

When she landed, she knew that it was a good routine but didn’t necessarily expect to score a perfect 10.0. Making history, however, felt “pretty good,” she said. McDonald, on her part, was not necessarily surprised by the score, as she was aware of Watterson’s potential and sees a lot of perfect routines in training. Still, witnessing the 10.0 was a delightful moment for her as a coach. “For her to go out there and swing so free and with so much joy and to see that reward, it was amazing,” McDonald said.

Achievements such as Watterson’s are important because they raise the team’s confidence, but as the Golden Bears prepare for regionals and nationals, they believe that the best is still to come, as they have not put together the perfect meet yet. 

“Milestones like that are special and deserve to be celebrated, but we have a lot of work left to do as we approach our championship season,” McDonald said. “So we want to take away the confidence that those things have brought us and file those away, then get back in the gym and continue to strive to keep improving each and every day so that we can take full advantage of the next opportunity.”

The team’s ultimate goal is to qualify to nationals after failing to do so in 2019 and, hopefully, to make it to the national final. Qualifying to nationals “is not really much of a goal but more of an expectation,” Watterson said. “But the goal would be to make it to the second day, and I think that would be an amazing way to end my college career.”

For Texas-born George, competing in front of her home crowd in Fort Worth would be a dream come true. “It would be kind of magical because I’ve grown up when nationals were in Texas, watching those girls and being like, ‘One day I’m going to be there, one day I’m going to be in Texas, and I’m going to be that person performing in front of all of you,’” she said. “So I think that’s something that I’ve been striving for since I’ve gotten to Cal.” 

Ultimately, while the success of the team is everyone’s ultimate goal, for the coaches the most important thing is that their athletes fulfil their dreams and achieve the recognition they deserve, because the memory of these experiences will stay with them for the rest of their lives. “Once they have them, those memories are theirs to keep forever,” Crandall-Howell said. “As a coach, an observer and a fan, that’s really amazing—your name is in the history books forever.” 

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Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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