According to sophomore gymnast Marci Bernholtz, Canadians are taking over the UCLA gymnastics team.
Since 1992, the UCLA women’s gymnastics recruiters have scouted all over Canada to bring the best of the best to UCLA. As a result, over the years, the program has built strong connections with the Canadian gymnastics community.
Today, the squad has three Canadian gymnasts who have proven to be strong performers who are now integral to the success of the team.
Besides having one of the best gymnastics programs in the country, UCLA has given these athletes an opportunity that Canada cannot: the opportunity participate in collegiate athletics.
Coach Valorie Kondos Field has recognized the grateful attitude of these Canadian athletes even though their homes are even farther away than the rest of the team.
“They are extremely appreciative of the opportunity to get a college education and to be able to compete in college gymnastics,” Kondos Field said.
Kondos Field said that Seneca Gymnastics is one of the clubs that has passed along some of the most talented gymnasts to UCLA. It was there that recruiters discovered one of the top gymnasts in UCLA history, Leah Homma of the 1997 squad. 2008 Canadian Olympian Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, who joined the team this season as a freshman, is also from Seneca Gymnastics.
“(Homma’s club) coach and I coached very similarly and have the same personality,” Kondos Field said. “She felt very comfortable sending athletes to us and over the years they’ve just been really good athletes.”
Knowing the rich history of ties between the Seneca club team and UCLA helped lure Hopfner-Hibbs to Westwood.
“We’ve had a whole bunch of girls … that went to UCLA and came back to Canada and told us how much they enjoyed it,” Hopfner-Hibbs said. “Right away I knew that that was the school I wanted to go to.”
Although the UCLA gymnastics program has recruited from other countries such as Austria, Ireland and Guatemala, the connection isn’t as strong as the one with Canada.
The 2008-2009 squad will welcome Canadians Hopfner-Hibbs, Bernholtz and freshman Aisha Gerber into the fold. Assistant coach Chris Waller said the trifecta has brought nothing but success to the team.
“There are currently five Canadians that have national championships, whether it’s a team championship or an individual championship with UCLA,” Waller said. “What we’ve developed with the Canadian gymnastics community in general is a lot of mutual trust and respect where I think they feel comfortable with the program and sending their athletes down here. We respect what they bring, which is a tremendous work ethic. They are Day 1 completely dedicated to the program.”
The Canadian gymnasts on squad this year seem to enjoy the UCLA lifestyle and are more than happy to be a part of the squad. At the same time, they are also very proud to be representatives of their home country.
“Leaving home was difficult at first because I was so accustomed to it, but coming here, everything just fit,” Bernholtz said. “I think it’s pretty cool (being a representative of Canada) and you get to be part of a unique group that comes over, so that’s nice.”
Hopfner-Hibbs echoed the same sentiment.
“I think being part of the UCLA family has been a really big adjustment, but it’s been amazing,” Hopfner-Hibbs said. “Every person brings something different to the team, and I love everything about it here at UCLA.”