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Nia Dennis follows happiness, pursues post-gymnastics entertainment career

(Emily Dembinski/Daily Bruin)

By Sam Settleman

June 6, 2021 7:43 p.m.

Don’t step out of bounds.

Don’t let go of the bar.

Don’t slip off the beam.

Don’t take extra steps.

For 18 years, Nia Dennis has lived within the boundaries of gymnastics.

Eight-hour training days as an elite gymnast turned into a full-time job as a UCLA gymnast. Now, at age 22, Dennis can finally try something different.

“There’s just so many things that I want to do because gymnastics has consumed so much of my life,” Dennis said. “This is definitely the time for me to really, really figure out what I’m good at.”

With her retirement officially in the books, the graduating senior has her sights set on signing with an agency and beginning a career in the entertainment industry. Dennis hopes to try her hand at stunt doubling, dancing, modeling and acting.

And while she may not know exactly what she wants to do yet, Dennis is clear on one thing.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to be a star,” Dennis said. “I didn’t know what that meant or how I was going to get there, but I just knew.”

But Dennis’ vision of stardom used to look a little different.

For the first 17 years of her life, stardom meant being an Olympian. It meant seeing thousands of hours of training culminate in a trip to Rio de Janeiro in August 2016.

(Courtesy of the Dennis Family)
Nia Dennis competing in 2008. Dennis began her gymnastics journey when she was 4 years old. (Courtesy of the Dennis Family)

When she was four years old, her parents recognized that it was no longer safe for their daughter to be flipping around on the playground. Searching for an avenue to channel her thrill-seeking behaviors, Casey and Deetra Dennis enrolled Nia in a gymnastics class.

“I also tried ballet and piano, but I vividly remember crying at every lesson – gymnastics was the only place I didn’t cry,” Dennis said. “I instantly fell in love and have been just flipping around ever since.”

For the first six years, Dennis’ time in the gym was an extension of her time on the playground – a place to play around. But it eventually became clear that Dennis was capable of turning gymnastics into far more than a hobby.

By the age of 10, she had begun her elite gymnastics journey. At 15, she earned back-to-back silver medals in the all-around at the Secret U.S. Classic and U.S. Championships.

Dennis competed for two seasons at the senior level before finally getting the opportunity to exhibit her talents in an Olympic year at the 2016 Stuttgart World Cup, moving her one step closer to achieving her dream.

But with only a month to spare before the competition, a double layout in training went awry. Dennis’ Achilles tendon was ruptured and her Olympic dreams were shattered.

“It just felt like everything that I sacrificed (and) my family sacrificed just went down the drain because (the) Olympics was the biggest goal for me,” Dennis said. “I really wanted to quit so badly, but I had to dig deep and dig within myself to not let the rest of my goals go down the drain.”

Much to the dismay of her coaches, Dennis called it quits on her elite career.

“I put myself first for once and did what I needed to do so I could feel ready coming into college,” Dennis said.

(Courtesy of Don Liebig, UCLA Photography)
Dennis, who committed to UCLA in 2015, won the 2018 NCAA championship with the Bruins in her freshman season. (Courtesy of Don Liebig, UCLA Photography)

Five years removed from the career-altering injury, Dennis has become a two-time viral sensation, a First-Team All-American and an NCAA team champion with the Bruins.

If not for the injury, she might never have made it to Westwood.

“It wasn’t set in stone,” Dennis said. “Looking back, if I was in that situation where I did make it to the Olympics, I would want myself to go to college, but I know back then that’s not what I was thinking. If I made it to the Olympics, I was going to start my career after that, or maybe try for another one.”

Dennis burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2018, hitting 43 of her 44 routines en route to an NCAA championship. Four years later, she has accrued career-high scores of 9.950 or better on all four events and racked up seven All-Pac-12 honors on three different apparatuses.

Despite the countless athletic accolades, UCLA gymnastics provided Dennis with more than just an opportunity to showcase her skills.

Coach Chris Waller – understanding that all athletic careers ultimately come to an end – hopes that gymnastics is a vessel through which his student-athletes can learn life lessons.

“You could make individual good athletes without addressing those things, but I do not believe you can have a successful or rewarding team culture without focusing at least as much on individual personal development,” Waller said.

As a Bruin, Dennis has adopted a growth mindset, learned how to have difficult conversations and become adaptable.

Leaving the robotic culture of elite gymnastics in favor of the vibrant atmosphere in Yates Gym also allowed Dennis to express her true self.

“I knew from a long time ago that I’ve always wanted to perform, but it became more clear after coming to UCLA,” Dennis said. “Being in this environment where I was just so supported, … it was just positive energy all the time, where I was able to let go and open up and find myself.”

Captivating millions with her riveting floor routines, Dennis proved she was a natural performer. After multiple appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, as well as guest spots on the Today Show, Access Hollywood and more, she has already garnered interest from TV show production crews.

“The amount of opportunity is – I don’t want to say endless because it’s not endless – but it almost feels endless,” Dennis said.

(Courtesy of Robert Zepeda, ABC)
Dennis and junior Margzetta Frazier were featured on the ABC docuseries “Soul of a Nation” in March. (Courtesy of Robert Zepeda, ABC)

So what does the future look like for a former UCLA gymnast who drew the eyes of millions with her high-flying tumbling and entertaining dancing?

For many Bruins before Dennis, the future meant exchanging flips in Pauley Pavilion for flips in Hollywood.

One of the most highly-regarded stuntwomen in the industry, Heidi Moneymaker got her start swinging bars for UCLA, where she became the first NCAA bars champion in program history in 1998 and won two championships with the blue and gold. Moneymaker has since been doing stunts on the big screen for more than 20 years, famously doubling for Scarlett Johansson in several Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

Kiralee Hayashi, a teammate of Moneymaker, similarly pursued a career in stunt performing, with 2009 graduate Natalie Padilla following suit. After earning nine First-Team All-American honors in three seasons in Westwood, Vanessa Zamarripa also took to the world of stunts. The latest to join the Bruin stunt doubling family is 2016 graduate and three-time floor All-American Sadiqua Bynum, who made a splash in 2018 as a stunt performer in “Black Panther.”

Bynum – who got her start in the industry courtesy of Padilla – has been a mentor for Dennis in breaking into the industry.

Last week, Bynum submitted Dennis’ name for a role as a stunt performer.

“She just has a lot of character,” Bynum said. “Anything where she’s able to perform in front of a camera I think would be amazing for her.”

Regardless of where she lands, Dennis has one goal for her future – to be happy.

“Gymnastics wasn’t always a happy path, a happy road – there were definitely dark times,” Dennis said. “I just don’t really want to shrink myself or dismiss my happiness anymore in the future because it is so important.”

 

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