One wouldn’t typically call a top-five team in the nation a “Cinderella story,” but for the UCLA Bruins, it’s an accurate description.
The last few years have been difficult for NCAA gymnastics at large and the Bruins in particular, culminating in their just missing out on a berth to nationals for the second year in a row to cap off a 2022 season fraught with controversy and tension.
Now, a year later following a change in coaching staff and a massive cultural overhaul, UCLA’s renaissance is in full effect and the team is heading back to nationals for the first time since 2019.
First-year head coach Janelle McDonald said of the Bruins’ triumphant performance, “I was incredibly proud of our team today. Not everything was perfect, but they fought for every single routine and they came together in a way I could only dream of. I couldn’t be prouder of them for hitting this milestone and making it to nationals.”
At this point, McDonald was interrupted by sophomore phenom Jordan Chiles letting out a scream of pure delight, causing the head coach to double over in laughter. Chiles, an Olympic and World Championship silver medalist, has long been known for her exuberance, but it’s hard to imagine McDonald’s predecessors having a similar reaction to such an unfiltered display of emotion.
That exchange perfectly illustrates the ethos of UCLA gymnastics under her leadership: “Competing confidently and for each other, and having a blast while doing it.”
Junior Chae Campbell “is still processing” the fact that—after two seasons being on the outside looking in—she and the Bruins are finally heading to Fort Worth.
“I think the culture change is really just us being able to have fun. This year we wanted to be a team with no regrets,” said Campbell. “Now that we’re here at this moment and we have successfully done that… I’m just really very grateful for Janelle and the rest of the coaching staff letting us be ourselves.”
After competing as an individual all-around qualifier at last season’s championships, Chiles is thrilled to have her teammates by her side this time around.
“I told [McDonald], ‘I am not gonna go by myself again. I’m not, I’m not doing it!’” Chiles exclaimed.
Star freshman Selena Harris stage whispered, “I would’ve been there with you,” at this remark, prompting a still-laughing McDonald to say, “Do you see what a day in my life is like?
McDonald noted that Harris was in tears of frustration prior to the competition, but rallied to earn a perfect 10 on vault and a 39.750 in the all-around after words of encouragement from her teammates.
“I think this team wanted to be at nationals so bad they were putting unnecessary pressure on themselves during the warm up, so we went to the locker room, and probably 12 different people spoke up: ‘We’re gonna go out there and we’re gonna do what we do. We’re gonna enjoy being together. We’re gonna give it 100%. We’re gonna fight for everything and we’re gonna leave with no regrets,’” recalled McDonald. “And so when that mind shift happened, I knew that they would come out here and kind of settle in.”
Settle in they did, scoring an impressive 197.950 to edge out Missouri for second place behind Pac-12 rival Utah. While securing a bid to nationals in front of a home crowd is certainly sweet, it’s the team’s character and camaraderie that stands out for McDonald.
“I couldn’t be any more proud of how they did that because it would have been easy to get distracted, but they leaned in. I thought that was really cool to see and definitely a testament to the culture that they committed to this season.”
UCLA will next compete in the national semifinal on April 13.
READ THIS NEXT: Jordan Chiles’ Sneaker Obsession Connects Her to Family, Black Culture
Article by Claire Billman
Like what you see? Consider donating to support our efforts throughout the season!