Tuesday, November 20

Gymnasts excel under intense pressure


Freshman Lichelle Wong performs her 9.900 floor exercise in Sunday's gymnastics meet against Arizona State with thousands of fans watching along in Pauley Pavilion. Gymnasts frequently perform alone in large arenas of thousands of fans. Minute mistakes have a huge impact on the team score, more so than in other sports.

Freshman Lichelle Wong performs her 9.900 floor exercise in Sunday's gymnastics meet against Arizona State with thousands of fans watching along in Pauley Pavilion. Gymnasts frequently perform alone in large arenas of thousands of fans. Minute mistakes have a huge impact on the team score, more so than in other sports. Asya Tabdilli


I’ve had a revelation.

An enlightening, a realization, an awakening, whatever you want to call it, I’ve had that.

I was sitting in Pauley Pavilion Sunday afternoon, in what was a pretty packed gym, looking down on the floor. And what I was looking at was one of the most pressure-packed situations I’ve witnessed in all of sports.

Rule out men’s basketball. What I saw involved female, physical specimens. Oh, and no Nikki Caldwell was in sight, so rule out women’s basketball.

Tired of trying to figure it out? OK, here’s a hint: it was gymnastics.

Forget a hint.

Have any of you UCLA sports fans ever attended a women’s gymnastics meet? It’s intense. Really intense.

I mean, I’ve seen gymnastics in the Olympics of course, but once you see it in person, you gain a new sense of appreciation for what gymnastics actually is. What these young women can do is nothing short of incredible.

And all the while, they’re doing it with every set of eyes in the house staring down at them. Let me give you a visual interpretation.

Lichelle Wong, a UCLA freshman, walks out onto a large, square mat, prepared to demonstrate her floor exercise. The DJ starts the music and it’s on. Wong starts dancing and flipping and sashaying all around the mat, while her teammates standing on the side of the mat cheer her on. Every eye in the house is on Wong. And there had to be at least 2,500 people in attendance. And I’m probably off with that number. There were probably more.

Doesn’t that seem like a lot of pressure for a freshman? Allow me to continue.

See, in gymnastics, every point counts. So every misstep counts as well. If you lose your balance even for a split second, points are deducted. If you land outside of the perimeter lines on the mat, points are deducted. If you take too big of a step on your landing after a flip, points are deducted.

Gymnastics requires personal perfection, more so than any other sport in the world.

Think about it. On the basketball court, you’ve got four other guys on your team and a coach drawing up plays on the sideline. If you lose the game, the blame could fall on virtually anyone. In addition, college and pro basketball games last 40 and 48 minutes, respectively. If you mess up in the first half or first quarter, you have ample time to redeem yourself.

Not in gymnastics. On that beam or on that mat or on those bars, you’ve got to be perfect for all of one to two minutes. There is no room for error.

Let’s look at football. Say your team is down 21 points at half. That’s a sizable lead, but it’s not impossible to overcome. Try going down 21 points in gymnastics. Better yet, try going down four points. Or three points.

That’s incredibly difficult to overcome, seeing as how the point differentials in the individual scores are usually so minute. One mistake on that floor routine and you can lose one-third of a point, which could be monumental in the long run.

Now, let’s revert to this weekend’s meet. The Bruins faced off against a Pac-10 foe, Arizona State. The Sun Devils weren’t the greatest challenge in the world, but they were a formidable opponent. With that being said, the attendance was still impressive.

But when the Bruins faced off against Utah earlier in the season, which was at that time ranked No. 2 in the country, 5,128 people crowded Pauley Pavilion. That means that the freshman Wong, who is serving as my example, had more than 10,000 eyes staring down at her while she danced, pranced and flipped on a mat for two minutes while trying to keep her composure.

That’s unheard of.

Sure, football game attendance dwarfs that of gymnastics. But I’ll put my money on Anna Li throwing a football before I put it on Kevin Prince doing a reverse, backflip, somersault flipdy-do.

So, Bruin fans, I implore you, come out one Sunday and check out one of the gymnastics meets. Not only will you not be disappointed, but, like me, you’ll gain a new appreciation for exactly what it is these young women do on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, back to my handstands … I’m taking it one move at a time.

Watch out, Vanessa Zamarripa.

E-mail Brantley at [email protected]

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