Hernández: UCLA gymnastics has a captivating magnetism, even in the time of coronavirus

·5 min read
Westwood, CA, Saturday, February 27, 2021 - UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis competes in the floor exercise.
UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis competes in the floor exercise, scoring a 9.850 against Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

What a waste, Nia Dennis finally sticking her landing on the vault and Margzetta Frazier nearly perfect on the uneven bars while UCLA thumped Oregon State on Saturday, only for virtually every seat in Pauley Pavilion to be empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How many fathers in Southern California could have used tickets to the meet?

I can tell you there was at least one.

You see, my daughter doesn’t want much to do with me these days, which I’m told is a normal stage of development for girls. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.

She’s 10.

Her company these days often costs me the living-room television and a part of my soul, as she subjects me to an endless stream of YouTube videos by some goof named Brent Rivera.

My daughter is into TikTok and Charli D’Amelio. She’s started experimenting with my wife’s makeup. She also likes UCLA gymnastics.

Over the previous two years, she did what she could to watch the likes of Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, even if it required her to sit next to me for two hours. She referred to her heroes by their first names, as if they were friends.

Which, to a degree, was by design.

“I do feel strongly that the culture of the program helps build an authentic performance by our student-athletes,” Bruins coach Chris Waller said. “When someone goes out there and they've got great choreography and they're well-prepared and they can perform big, when that is reflecting a truth within them, you feel like you see them for real who they are. That, in my opinion, is what moves people.”

My daughter and I attended almost every home meet in the two years or so before the pandemic shut down the world.

Mindful of how much it costs to attend most sporting events, I never pushed my children to watch anything. About the only other time I took either of them to an athletic competition was when I dragged my then-5-year-old son to a boxing match at the insistence of my father, who, alarmed by how much I was coddling him, said with chuckle, “It’d be good for him to see someone get his ass kicked.”

My daughter was taking gymnastics classes when she discovered the Bruins through social media, specifically Katelyn Ohashi’s famous made-for-Instagram 90-second floor routine in 2019. She asked me to take her to a meet. I figured we would go once; we ended up becoming regulars.

I don’t think I was alone.

The arena was always packed with fathers and mothers accompanied by ponytailed girls, so many of them that it wasn’t unusual for attendance at these meets to exceed 10,000.

It was easy to understand why. The atmosphere was always festive, music playing nonstop and gymnasts cheered on by their dancing teammates. The student section was engaged, certainly more than it was for any basketball game.

Despite her dislike of her instructor and her fear of the high beam that ended her own gymnastic career, my daughter remained attached to the team.

Much has changed in the last year, of course.

UCLA gymnast Margzetta Frazier competes in the uneven parallel bars, scoring a 9.950 against Oregon State.
UCLA gymnast Margzetta Frazier competes in the uneven parallel bars, scoring a 9.950 against Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins are now in their second year under Waller, who replaced longtime coach Valorie Kondos Field after the 2019 season.

While the prohibition of indoor crowds has affected every team in town, the ramifications feel especially profound for UCLA.

With the possible exception of Staples Center when the Lakers play, no local venue has encountered as much difficulty recreating its typical atmosphere as much as Pauley Pavilion when Bruins gymnasts compete.

Didn’t matter how loud the music was played on Saturday. Didn’t matter how much artificial crowd noise was in the background.

This didn’t sound like a UCLA meet.

Ordinarily, Frazier’s routine on the uneven bars would have shaken the arena.

The spectators in the student section would have rhythmically flashed their fingers on each of their hands and chanted, “10! 10! 10!” Girls like my daughter would have screamed and clapped furiously.

But guess what?

This still works.

UCLA gymnasts join hands during a ceremony honoring the Black Lives Matter movement.
UCLA gymnasts join hands during a ceremony honoring the Black Lives Matter movement before Saturday's meet against Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As much as the circumstances have changed, the show remains the same.

The Bruins are ranked 13th in the country, which makes this something of a down year for them. Nonetheless, their artistic flair has transformed Frazier and Dennis into viral sensations.

“UCLA has had this legacy of artistic, beautiful, big, bold floor routines for 30 years,” Waller said. “A legacy that long brings with it recruits that want to be a part of that tradition.”

On Saturday, the Bruins hosted what they called the Black Excellence Meet. Taking center stage was Dennis, a once painfully shy freshman who as a senior performs a bold floor routine inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.

“We’ve created such a safe space to be open, be free and be our most authentic self with no judgment and just love,” Dennis said. “Living in that space for the last four years has allowed me to speak out on matters.”

Dennis beamed, like Ross and Kocian did before her, Ohashi before that.

With my cable provider not offering the Pac-12 Network, my daughter followed the meet on social media. When I returned home, she asked when we could go again.

I didn’t have an answer for her. What I was able to tell her was that when the doors to Pauley Pavilion reopen, the team she will see will have the same spirit as the teams she saw before.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.