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Former UCLA gymnast gets 2nd chance at Senior Day during San Jose State meet

After her Senior Day celebration was canceled a season ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate student Mercedez Sanchez made her debut at Pauley Pavilion during UCLA gymnastics’ 2021 Senior Day celebration as a member of San Jose State after spending the last four years in Westwood. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Sam Settleman

March 17, 2021 2:52 p.m.

The Bruins welcomed back a familiar face to Pauley Pavilion on Senior Day.

No. 13 UCLA gymnastics (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) hosted San Jose State (2-2) in its final home meet of the regular season, with a special guest making her return to Westwood. While currently enrolled as a graduate student at San Jose State, Mercedez Sanchez spent her last four years as a Bruin.

A year ago, Sanchez was set to make her competitive debut for UCLA in what was supposed to be her final meet at Pauley Pavilion.

“I had talked to her about it sometime before we got to the end of the season – and she knew that and everybody knew it,” said coach Chris Waller. “The whole team was pumped up to see her get out there and compete.”

But the Bruins’ Senior Day was canceled just 48 hours prior to the start of the meet. In a team meeting shortly after the meet’s cancellation, Waller got emotional as he apologized to Sanchez.

“I’m sorry,” Waller said to Sanchez with tears in his eyes during a video posted on the UCLA Athletics YouTube channel. “I wanted you to have your chance.”

Instead of moving on from the sport after her graduation from UCLA, Sanchez elected to continue her gymnastics career at San Jose State. While the Spartans’ season was initially delayed, Sanchez has competed seven times for the team in just four meets.

In the Bruins’ final 2021 regular-season meet, on a day dedicated to the team’s six current seniors, Sanchez had the opportunity to compete in Pauley Pavilion for the first time – albeit, for a different team.

“It gives me chills to think of Mercedez Sanchez finishing out our senior meet with us here,” said senior Kendal Poston. “Just to know that someone who is as hardworking as Mercedez and defied all odds to come back and got her senior meet ripped away and then came back and finished it up here in Pauley, that gives you chills. That’s what the sport is all about.”

After being introduced to a round of applause from her former teammates in her former home arena, Sanchez competed on two events for her new team. With the entire UCLA team and coaching staff looking on, the graduate student scored a 9.750 on bars with a stuck double tuck dismount followed by a 9.675 on beam.

“I was just amazed and so proud of her,” said senior Pauline Tratz. “Seeing her bars and sticking her dismount, I started tearing up. I really did.”

Poston and Tratz spent three years together with Sanchez as Bruins, with all three winning an NCAA championship in 2018 in addition to back-to-back Pac-12 championships.

Even though Sanchez never competed in more than an exhibition for UCLA, Poston said she truly embodied what it means to be a Bruin.

“She was such a light to this team, and I know she’s such a light at San Jose State,” Poston said.

At the conclusion of the meet, Sanchez joined her former fellow Bruins as they celebrated this year’s seniors. Despite no longer being a UCLA senior, Sanchez was the first gymnast honored by Waller during the ceremony.

After giving all of her former teammates and coaches air high-fives and air hugs, Sanchez took the mic and thanked her former team for the past four years.

Tratz said having the opportunity to honor Sanchez with this year’s senior class meant a lot to the team.

“(That) was definitely another highlight for all of us, for the seniors especially, because we know how hard she has worked and we really, really wanted to celebrate her last year,” Tratz said.

Poston said seeing the Bruins supporting Sanchez and the Spartans – and vice versa – highlighted a significant trend in collegiate gymnastics.

“I can see NCAA gymnastics trending towards that – towards love, towards women supporting women,” Poston said. “To watch Mercedez and then her team be cheering for us and us cheering for them, that’s what this is about.”

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Sam Settleman | Sports editor
Settleman is currently the Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and gymnastics beats. He was previously an assistant editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
Settleman is currently the Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and gymnastics beats. He was previously an assistant editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
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