Yates Gym doesn’t seem the same without them. Last year’s senior class boosted UCLA gymnastics to new heights. The Bruins had Olympians, All-Americans and key performers for the 2018 NCAA champions, but their careers ended unceremoniously in March.
Now the Bruins look for leaders to step into their places.
From Nia Dennis, a senior who does her best leading in one-on-one settings, to Chae Campbell, a freshman whose voice resonates despite her youth, the Bruins will count on everyone to replace an influential senior class that included five All-Americans.
“There’s a reason why we don’t have a team captain on UCLA’s gymnastics team,” head coach Chris Waller said, “and it’s because I believe that everybody has the ability to be a leader.”
The Bruins lost their Olympians Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, who helped boost the team’s popularity since they were freshmen in 2017. With Ross and Kocian, UCLA averaged 7,977 fans at home meets during the last four years, a jump from the 2016 average of 6,010.
Between Ross, Kocian, Gracie Kramer, Grace Glenn and Felicia Hano, UCLA lost all of its perfect 10 scorers in the eight-person senior class.
The Bruins, who open their season Saturday at home against Arizona State, were expecting to replace that star power with another group of elite competitors, but four of their seven would-be freshmen have not joined the team because of the pandemic or delayed Olympic campaigns.
It’s a “huge loss to our depth,” Waller said. UCLA had another loss when sophomore Chloe Lashbrooke, who turned into an unexpected vocal leader this season, suffered a torn Achilles tendon.
“The upside is it gives so many more people opportunity to get out there and shine,” Waller said. “We’re leaning on everybody.”
The Bruins are without Canadian national team member Brooklyn Moors, who is redshirting, and Olympic hopefuls Emma Malabuyo, Jordan Chiles and Ana Padurariu, who deferred their enrollments. The remaining freshmen — Campbell, Frida Esparza and Sara Ulias — are fitting in seamlessly though as they adjust to the unique team-first mind-set in college gymnastics.
“Coming from club, it’s always about you; it’s not really about a team as much,” said Campbell, a two-time junior Olympic team member. "That’s also added another sense of pressure and I’ve definitely improved with how I handle that pressure better.”
Campbell credits Dennis and junior Norah Flatley for helping set the expectation of putting the team first. Dennis, who underwent shoulder surgery in March to correct a years-old labrum injury, is “super woman,” Campbell said. Waller expects the senior who competed only on vault and floor last season because of the injury to make a jump into the all-around.
Flatley is also a candidate for all-around competition as the Bruins lost Ross, whose school-record 24 All-American awards includes four first-team all-around honors. The Olympic gold medalist is now a UCLA undergraduate assistant coach. Still having Ross in the gym is the one thing that feels normal, Dennis joked, and now the Bruins will try to compete with the lessons they learned from Ross and her classmates.
“Kyla and Kocian were always people I looked up to because they were so confident and sure of themselves when they stepped up to the competition floor,” said Flatley, who will vault for the first time since her freshman year to compete in the all-around. “We all knew that they were going to hit their routine and it was going to be amazing. So I think that’s something I’m hoping to take on this year: someone the team knows is going to hit for them.”
Filling the void left by the former seniors on the scoresheet and the locker room adds extra pressure, Dennis said, but the Bruins are happy to share the load.
“I’m confident in everybody on this team because everybody contributes in their own way,” Dennis said. “It’s time for everybody to step up out of their comfort zone and contribute in the ways that the previous senior class would and ways that they might not usually.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.