“Bruin Born.” To many, these words are simply a slogan of school spirit. For senior heptathlete Kendall Gustafson, they evoke a more literal meaning.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gustafson’s parents both attended UCLA in the 1980s. Her paternal grandparents did too, and there began the Gustafson family’s relationship with UCLA track and field.
“My grandpa was really good friends with Rafer Johnson (in high school); he didn’t quite have the athletic skills to join him on the track team but he really wanted to be a part of it, so he became the track manager (at UCLA),” Gustafson said. “He was the biggest UCLA track fan.”
Johnson competed for UCLA from 1955-1959 in track and field and basketball and ended his athletic career with a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics decathlon. One of UCLA’s annual home meets, the Rafer Johnson/Jackie Joyner-Kersee Invitational, is now partially named in his honor.
Despite her grandfather’s dedication to the Bruins and his close friendship with one of the school’s legends, Gustafson does not credit her love of sports to him. Instead, she believes her father started that trend in her life.
“I developed this love for sports and it was something my dad and I bonded over,” Gustafson said. “He and my mom have been there for me the entire time; they’re there for literally every single one of my meets.”
Gustafson began her track career when she was in elementary school and was interested in trying everything that track and field had to offer. By the time she was 12, she had won her first national competition in a USA Track and Field National Youth Outdoor Championships pentathlon.
Her early interest in multis caught the eye of Lori Smith-Thompson, a personal coach and mother of former UCLA track and field athlete Turquoise Thompson.
“She was very mannerable, just attitudewise, and that’s always a big (thing) with me,” Smith-Thompson said. “Once I got her on the track, it was obvious she was a beast: Because I was a heptathlete, any athlete that comes to me with the size and strength (to compete as a multis athlete), I kind of see myself in.”
However, when Gustafson arrived at what she thought would be her dream school, Duke University, she realized it wasn’t the place for her. She constantly struggled with mental health issues at Duke, which eventually forced her to switch from competing in the heptathlon to only the javelin throw in an attempt to reduce the stress she was under.
“I got to the point where I ended up in the emergency room. I basically had a breakdown,” Gustafson said. “Looking back, it was pretty severe depression; I reached a very low point.”
Gustafson decided that she would not return to Duke for a third year, so she packed her things and returned home to Los Angeles when the school year finished.
“At that point I didn’t have any idea of where I was going to go,” Gustafson said. “I left Duke before I had any idea I was coming to UCLA; I was a college dropout for a quick minute.”
Gustafson used the summer home to heal and spend more time with family. However, this time was bittersweet as her grandfather had become very ill.
“I got to spend a lot of time with my grandparents but my grandpa ended up passing away in December 2015, two weeks before I started at UCLA.” Gustafson said.
Over the summer, Gustafson had reached out to UCLA’s track and field coaches who, upon seeing her strong academic standing, told her they had a spot for her on the team. Gustafson agreed to attend the school on the condition that she would be taking fall quarter to heal instead of train, which the coaches agreed to.
“I was able to tell (my grandpa) that I was coming to UCLA and it was one of the proudest moments he’s ever had,” Gustafson said. “My one wish is that he would have been able to see me compete for UCLA. That quarter off gave me the opportunity to spend the last six months with him which was very important to me.”
Gustafson began the season by notching third-place finishes in her first two pentathlons. As the track and field season shifted outdoors, Gustafson was faced with another obstacle, this time in the form of an unfortunately familiar physical injury.
“Our first home meet, I was throwing the javelin and I felt a little twinge in my knee,” Gustafson said. “I woke up the next morning and could barely walk. I tore my meniscus in the same knee I tore my ACL my sophomore year of high school.”
Trainers tried to decide whether or not Gustafson should medically redshirt, but she was determined to return that season. She had already used a redshirt season at Duke because of mental health struggles and said she did not want to take a sixth year under any circumstances.
Gustafson competed through the injury for the rest of the season, and while her performances were limited, her perseverance was noticed:Gustafson’s teammates would go on to vote her in as a team captain following the end of her first season.
“(Gustafson) just has this relaxed energy that helps us do our best,” said redshirt sophomore multi Christina Chenault. “(She is) one of my best friends, it’s been fun to train with her for the last three years.”
Gustafson returned for her second year at UCLA feeling recharged and with a renewed confidence in her abilities. She placed first and second in back-to-back meets in the pentathlon, but she got injured again when she rolled her ankle during a long jump approach at practice.
“There was a loud, loud pop,” Gustafson said. “I looked back at my ankle and it was the size of a cantaloupe instantly.”
She had ruptured her right Achilles tendon and damaged all the lateral ligaments surrounding it.
Gustafson was out again for several weeks, and her trainers cautioned her against returning too early. However, she remained firm in her desire against a sixth year of college and made it her goal to return by the 2017 Pac-12 multis, where she finished fifth.
Gustafson once again left the season feeling disappointed that circumstances outside her control had dampened what could have been – injuries had again robbed her of her peak performances, and it was also announced that the coaching staff would not be returning for the 2018 season just before regionals.
As the summer began it was announced that the school would be hiring former UCLA standout Avery Anderson as the new track and field director, and Gustafson quickly found that her final season would be different.
“(Anderson and I) had a talk and immediately realized we were on the same page for what we wanted for this program and the direction for the team,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson said the first few months of training under Anderson led to frustration because it was different from the training regimen she was used to.
However, after working through early awkwardness, the combination of Anderson and Gustafson has resulted in one of the team’s bright spots this season. Gustafson is ranked eighth in the nation in the heptathlon, an event that sends the top 24 athletes to the national championships in June.
“I’ve watched (Gustafson) have a really good handle on herself as an athlete this year, and that’s allowed a certain amount of trust between her and me,” Anderson said.
Now with a moderately healthy year of collegiate track under her belt, Gustafson is not quite ready to end the ride just yet. She will be returning to the team next year as a volunteer assistant coach, both to maintain her ties to the program and to also continue training with Anderson with her eyes on a 2020 Olympic bid in Tokyo.
“I was in her shoes at one point. I’m looking at her and I think it’s a possibility and if she wants to do it, then I’m going to put everything I can into helping her get there,” Anderson said.
The story of the Gustafsons’ involvement with UCLA track and field began with a friendship with one of the school’s most notable alumni, an Olympic multievent athlete no less. The story could very well end with another multievent Olympian. However, Gustafson hinted that her athletic career may not be the end of her involvement with the school.
“My ultimate goal would be to be an athletic director but we’ll see what (UCLA Athletic Director) Dan Guerrero has to say about that,” Gustafson said with a laugh. “I’m not closing any doors though, I want to see where my path takes me.”