Under normal circumstances, UCLA’s gymnastics meet against Oklahoma would have been billed as a showdown between two top-tier programs with national championship ambitions. The individual scores and the final results would have taken center stage.
The circumstances ceased to be normal when nearly 200 female gymnasts testified in court against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who had sexually abused them over a period of many years.
Sunday’s meet was about, and for those gymnasts. It was a celebration of their courage.
Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols was the first gymnast to speak out about Nassar’s abuse and had been labeled “Athlete A” in the legal proceedings until recently. Former USA Gymnastics national team members and UCLA alumnae Mattie Larson, Jamie Dantzscher, Jeanette Antolin and Jordyn Wieber – now a volunteer assistant for UCLA gymnastics – were also honored for their involvement in the case.
Coach Valorie Kondos Field said it took two weeks to plan the tribute, which included a speech and a video honoring the women.
“It’s kind of like divine power brought this together,” Kondos Field said. “For Oklahoma to come in, for ESPN to pick it up, and they’ve never done a meet before, for (Nichols) to be “Athlete A,” for us to have (Larson), (Dantzscher), (Antolin) and (Wieber) in town – it all just came together.”
The meet itself lived up to expectations. The athletes seemed to have an attitude of “anything you can do, I can do better,” resulting in six perfect scores. On the final rotation, there were four consecutive perfect scores – two from each team.
Redshirt senior Christine Peng-Peng Lee nabbed a perfect score on balance beam for the second week in a row, while junior Katelyn Ohashi and sophomore Felicia Hano claimed their first 10.0 scores on floor exercise.
When asked if they had ever seen that many 10s in a single meet, the gymnasts looked at each other and shook their heads.
“No,” Lee said.
There was also a crowd of almost 10,000. Packed houses in college gymnastics are rare, except in select places, like Utah. They are even rarer when the meet comes on Super Bowl Sunday.
“We didn’t expect much of a crowd,” Ohashi said.
The perfect scores and the sold-out arena were, once again, secondary concerns in the grand scheme of things.
That much was evident in the teal pom-poms in the bleachers, the “Together We Rise” t-shirts the gymnasts wore after the meet and in the tribute video that played on the big screen. The video featured gymnasts from both teams addressing the current situation in the sport and underwent many days of editing to make sure the right message was being sent.
“We were very careful about the verbiage that was used. We wanted this to be a celebration,” Kondos Field said. “We didn’t want to make it about the courtroom or (Nassar) because we’re past him. We’re moving on proud and strong and confident.”