New-Look UCLA Working To Return To The Top Of NCAA Gymanstics

The 2020 UCLA Bruin squad is ready to come out of the gate strong in 2020—and what better way to open the season than going up against the reigning national champions, the Oklahoma Sooners? The Bruins are up for the challenge. 

See UCLA, Oklahoma, and more NCAA gymnastics teams open the season at the California Grand Invitational, streaming live right here on FloGymnastics, Jan. 4.

Last year, UCLA finished its season in third place after Oklahoma and LSU, but the Bruins were looking for something more to conclude Valorie Kondos Field’s reign as head coach.

All teams experience pressure to win a national championship. But the pressure on the 2019 Bruin squad was staggering. With Miss Val announcing 2019 as her final season at UCLA, Katelyn Ohashi going viral for her floor routine, and the Bruins being the reigning national champions from 2018, the pressure to win it all was huge. 

A third-place finish is nothing to be upset about, but it wasn’t satisfying for this particular team. In 2020, however, the team is starting fresh—and not just with a new season, but new almost-everything.

The coaching staff is new, their athletic trainer is new, and the post-Val era at UCLA is new. It’s a new year and new UCLA squad. We are here for it.

With the team hungry for a big year and another championship, starting the season against the toughest competition out there is no coincidence.

“Why not start the season with the biggest competition in the country?” first-year head coach Chris Waller said. “It sends a message to our team that we believe in them.

“If we win, it’ll be a huge confidence booster for us. If we lose, it’s a learning experience and driving force for the rest of the year.”

Waller’s athletes clearly feel the same.

“I think that starting off our season against OU is super exciting because we’re starting off with a bang,” senior Grace Glenn said. “It’s also great motivation for our team to push ourselves and see what we’re capable of right from the beginning.”

“I am really excited to start the season off against Oklahoma because we have goals that we want to accomplish this season as a team, and that starts by dialing in right away,” junior Nia Dennis added. “We need to be precise from the beginning of season, all the way to the end, and the Collegiate Challenge is the perfect way to start the season.”

The team has found enough trust in their new coaching staff to want to step up their training midway through preseason. Waller noted his excitement when the girls came to him and said they wanted to do more in the gym to work toward a championship. “The girls gave us permission after our intrasquad to be challenged,” he said. “Since that point, we’ve ramped it up and worked hard to dial in details.”

The graduation of 2019’s seniors leaves a few holes in the lineup to be filled, especially on floor.

“In terms of performance on floor, Katelyn (Ohashi)’s role is hard to fill,” Waller said. “Floor has been easier than I thought in that everyone wants to come to UCLA because they want to do inspired floor routines. And our athletes want to do that. It will be a battle to fill the lineup as we are deep there.”

Especially with “Operation Peacock” from this year’s edition of the annual “Meet the Bruins” event, Waller and his team have established a high bar for floor routines, continuing Val’s legacy. For those who may have missed “Meet the Bruins,” “Operation Peacock” was Waller’s name for the new floor routines’ introduction, capped off by each girl wearing an individually designed leotard to match her routine’s character. It was a way for the girls to bust out of their shells and bring the routines to life. 

“Meet the Bruins was super fun,” Glenn said. “I was definitely most excited to see the floor rotation play out and the revealing of the customized leotards. I think we had a great turn out, and I was surprised with how many people came to support us. This was a great opportunity for everyone to gain experience in front of an audience and to get first meet jitters out of the way before Anaheim.”

This was a huge accomplishment for the team as the loss of their 2019 senior class left a gap in the team spirit and energy. Brielle Nguyen and Ohashi, specifically, were both key contributors both athletically and energetically. Lucky for UCLA, Meet the Bruins brought a lot of fun and energy that the team needed. 

“Emotionally and team-spirit wise, those are the places and intangibles where we leaned on Brielle and Katelyn,” Waller said. “They had such a free spirit about themselves and they always had fun. That leadership was instrumental in keeping the team focused on fun. It’s gymnastics, we’re not doing surgery.” 

The “Meet the Bruins” event offered an opportunity to see the new team’s energy on the competition floor. “The biggest takeaway from this event was how much fun I had,” Glenn said. “The team energy was amazing and at the end of the day, having fun is the most important.” 

It seems like the loss of two athletes who brought the spirit will be easily filled by a passionate Bruin group.

“The main thing our team emphasizes is staying in our ‘Bruin Bubble,’” Glenn said. “If we all stay connected and engaged with one another, we’ll be successful. We just need to trust our training because we’ve all put in the work, and I have no doubt that this team can go all the way.” 

And by the looks of it, the team is already pushing for a successful year as a unit. 

Glenn and Dennis described the team with the same single word. “This team is authentic,” both said without missing a beat. Glenn went on to share, “We truly care about each other, and we all have each other’s backs no matter what. This team has gone through a lot of adversity throughout this past year, but it has brought us all closer together, and everyone has done an amazing job of putting forth their best effort for the team. This team doesn’t back down from any challenges and has unbelievable strength and courage.”

Starting the year against the reigning national champions is definitely a way to make a statement early on and begin the Bruins’ journey toward “going all the way.”

The team is looking for a huge start to the new era of UCLA gymnastics and, as always, they’re looking to start the party immediately at the beginning of the year. 

“I want us to go into the first meet confident, authentically ourselves, which is enjoying each other’s company, laughing, dancing, but also maintaining controlled energy to ensure we execute the way we know we can and want to,” Dennis said. 

Waller agrees wholeheartedly.

“I want the team to be able to go out there and trust and lean on each other and know they’ve done everything they can to prepare, which I believe to be true,” he said. “Go big and have fun.” 

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