During UCLA gymnastics’ season-opening meet against Ohio State, sophomore Gracie Kramer had the opportunity to prove her competition struggles were behind her.
She was in the vault and floor exercise lineups for the first time since February 2017 – when she registered a fall on both events.
Going second in the rotation against the Buckeyes, she charged full-steam ahead at the vault and was unable to control her landing.
Kramer started the season where the last one ended – a fall.
“I overthought my vault. I don’t need to run full-speed (like I did),” Kramer said. “I need to get kind of cocky and say, ‘Gracie, this is a vault you’ve done a thousand times.’”
Rather than allowing her feelings about the fall affect her next event, Kramer focused on her offseason floor preparation to perform a confident, assured routine.
“I had already drilled such a great foundation for my passes that pressure didn’t change anything,” Kramer said. “I think preparation is everything for me. It allows me to have fun. I can trust that everything is going to fall into place.”
After associate coach Chris Waller shook her out and told her to be confident, Kramer stepped onto the platform and into character – a patient attempting to escape from an asylum. She worked her way through the halls, trying to figure things out and finding time to make it rain.
She nailed her tumbling passes and executed the moves choreographed by her former teammate and current undergraduate assistant coach Hallie Mossett.
The judges rewarded her with a 9.900.
Since the opening meet, Kramer has claimed a permanent spot in the floor lineup. All but one score has been above 9.850, including a career-best 9.950 against Oregon State.
“I did not (expect that). I knew she had it in her,” said coach Valorie Kondos Field. “I didn’t expect her to be that consistent. She’s been extremely consistent this year.”
Kondos Field’s statement points to how far Kramer has come in a year. Her success and status as an important contributor in the Bruins’ lineup was far from an inevitable next step in her career.
She wasn’t supposed to be at UCLA in the first place. Up until her last week of high school, Kramer was in line for a full-ride to Arizona State.
Then, the Sun Devils fired their coach and said they wouldn’t announce the replacement until the end of the summer. Kramer, unable to sit and wait, decommitted.
She came to UCLA as a walk-on, never having gone through the recruitment process. Her new teammates included Olympic gold medalists Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, and Peng-Peng Lee, who would have been in the 2012 games had it not been for a serious knee injury.
Kramer found herself unable to measure up to their distinguished, elite gymnastics careers and medals earned at the highest international level.
So she piled pressure on herself to rise to their level.
“I put so much emphasis on the fact that I wasn’t a national champion, or that I wasn’t an Olympic champion,” Kramer said. “I looked at it as pressure to be more like them, that I wasn’t enough.”
For the first few meets of her freshman season, Kramer walked a mental tightrope. When she fell twice in a single meet, a crisis of confidence ensued.
For the remainder of the season, she struggled to be consistent and was shuttled in and out of the lineup. A fall on the vault during the Pac-12 championships harmed UCLA’s chances at claiming the conference crown.
Lee had befriended Kramer when they roomed together during road trips. A seasoned veteran of the team, Lee discussed her struggles during her first years at UCLA with the freshman.
“I think that helped her a lot to hear that the upperclassmen also struggled,” Lee said. “Freshman year, you think you’re the only one with problems. In reality, everyone goes through that.”
The low point of Kramer’s freshman odyssey came at nationals.
On the day of the 2017 NCAA semifinals, Kramer prepared to compete in the vault. She was penciled into the UCLA lineup.
Then, at the last minute, Kondos Field stepped in. She replaced Kramer with then-senior Angi Cipra.
The next day, when the Bruins competed in the Super Six for the national title, Kramer handed her credential to then-junior Rechelle Dennis. While Dennis joined the team on the competition floor, Kramer sat in the stands with her parents. She was reduced to a spectator.
“That was really hard as an athlete and as an individual to confront the issue,” Kramer said. “I was completely taken away from my team. Also, my parents – I felt like I was such a disappointment. They flew out there to see me.”
Forced to sit in the stands and watch her team fight for a national title, Kramer decided to do everything in her power to never be in the same position again.
“I totally switched my mindset,” Kramer said. “It was a blessing in disguise. It made me realize I never want to be in that position ever again.”
Her mission began in the spring quarter following the season. She took the workouts seriously. She started eating better. She learned to handle the college environment and the distractions that come with it.
Kondos Field said she believes Kramer’s offseason growth is a natural part of the process for freshmen.
“I think freshmen grow up about five years during their first year,” Kondos Field said. “College is a totally different planet for them and they have to figure it out.”
Lee, a close friend and the most senior member on the team, says it has been highly rewarding to see Kramer make such huge strides.
“Being an upperclassman, it’s so nice when you have a team member who struggled and see them mature and take ownership of who they are,” Lee said. “I think, now, she’s not afraid to be herself inside the gym.”
Kramer is now a firmly entrenched member of the team. She is no longer the walk-on who didn’t go through the recruiting process, nor is she the gymnast who saw herself as an outsider who couldn’t measure up to her accomplished teammates.
“I think, last year, she didn’t believe she belonged here,” Kondos Field said. “I think now she knows she belongs here.”
Should the Bruins continue to score in the mid-to-high 197 range and qualify for the Super Six, don’t expect her to be sitting in the stands.