He tried to fight it, but Chris Waller had to bend the rules for this moment.
After junior Sara Taubman stuck her dismount in her college debut Saturday, the UCLA gymnastics coach who wanted to follow strict social distancing protocols leaned in for a gentle embrace. Taubman had earned it during the Bruins' season opener against Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion.
Taubman scored a 9.825 on bars and was one of seven UCLA gymnasts who either made their college debuts or debuted on a new event Saturday. The rising stars included freshman Chae Campbell, who competed in the all-around, and Frida Esparza, who began her career with an event-winning 9.9 on bars and a 9.8 on beam, to help UCLA (1-0) fend off a comeback from the No. 15 Sun Devils (1-2) in a 196.15-195.95 win.
The Bruins had their lowest team score since Feb. 20, 2017, but after a shortened fall training schedule and a six-month summer break because of the COVID-19 pandemic, simply getting back into competition made Saturday a success, even if there were no fans to witness it.
“The team love they showed, the heart they showed in getting themselves to be confident with so little preparation, the resilience, the pride they took in each other and in their performances, I couldn’t say enough about how proud I am of the character of the team,” Waller said. “There was so much heart between everybody, they brought their own fans to a degree.”
With COVID-19 protocols in mind, the Bruins marked successful routines by flailing their arms, screaming and shaking plastic hand-shaped noise makers. No one high-fived. They fought their celebratory instincts and didn’t wrap each other in bear hugs after routines.
Some staff members gave into the urge after Taubman’s routine though and settled for short embraces.
“It will be one of the most memorable moments in my coaching career,” Waller said.
Taubman saved UCLA’s bars rotation after Campbell fell in the leadoff spot. Taubman, who Waller said had struggled with self-confidence early in her career, had never even performed an exhibition routine for UCLA before. She casually danced through a long delay as judges debated Campbell’s score, and floated through her routine as if she were still in practice.
“It kind of felt like slow motion, hearing everyone’s voice as I’m going into that last handstand,” Taubman said. “I really felt like the whole team was swinging with me.”
Taubman stuck her dismount and fought back tears. UCLA didn’t have to count a fall on bars, finishing with a 48.975 on the event after Pauline Tratz scored a 9.65 in the anchor position on her first-ever collegiate bar routine. Tratz, a stalwart on vault and floor, entered the bars lineup after Norah Flatley, a 2019 second-team All-American on bars, injured her ankle in warmups.
The Bruins extended their lead on balance beam to 0.275, but nearly lost it on floor when each of UCLA’s first three competitors stepped out of bounds. Each miscue was a 0.1-point deduction. Arizona State inched ahead, but 9.9s from Margzetta Frazier and Campbell and a 9.95 anchor score from Nia Dennis secured the UCLA victory.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.