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Out of Bounds: A New UCLA Gymnastics Coach Just Landed

By Jon Christon, Sam Settleman, and Nico Edgar

June 4, 2022 11:46 a.m.

Former UCLA gymnastics coach Chris Waller (left) stands during a gymnastics meet and new UCLA gymnastics coach Janelle McDonald poses in front of a UCLA sign. (Left to right: Sakshi Joglekar/Assistant Photo editor, Courtesy of Jesus Ramirez/UCLA Athletics)
Former UCLA gymnastics coach Chris Waller (left) stands during a gymnastics meet and new UCLA gymnastics coach Janelle McDonald poses in front of a UCLA sign. (Left to right: Sakshi Joglekar/Assistant Photo editor, Courtesy of Jesus Ramirez/UCLA Athletics)

In this episode of “Out of Bounds,” Daily Bruin’s sports podcast, Sports editor Jon Christon talks with Sports editor Sam Settleman and Sports staffer Nico Edgar about Janelle McDonald’s recent hire as UCLA gymnastics’s head coach and their thoughts on the prospects for her next year.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/46x7tb30vgDBZ4jp49kuTS?si=k4CwfLs-TiC6ipe9wHrOqA

Jon Christon: Hi, my name is Jon Christon and this is “Out of Bounds,” Daily Bruin’s sports podcast.

JC: Hello, everyone and welcome back to another episode of Out of Bounds. Again, my name is Jon Christon and I’m the sports editor here at the Daily Bruin. We’re back with another gymnastics-themed episode of “Out of Bounds.” I couldn’t be more excited to welcome back Sam Settleman and Nico Edgar, our two gymnastics experts. How are you guys doing today?

Nico Edgar: Oonce oonce, raise the roof, we’ve got a new coach, let’s go! All jokes aside, Jon. I am very, very happy to be here. I wish we were doing this in person, Sam. There was a little bit of– we got lost in translation there. But I’m very excited to do this again.

Sam Settleman: Yeah, I’m doing well as well. Hopefully, we can make this a regular thing from now on. But yeah, I’m excited.

JC: I am excited as well. We are recording this on Thursday night of May 19th, so if anything happens between now and when this goes up, you can’t blame us. I say that at the start of every episode. But yeah, we’re here to talk about gymnastics again. And we’ll just get started. Janelle McDonald is the new UCLA gymnastics coach. We talked about the opening a few weeks ago on Out of Bounds, but she has been officially hired. She was hired on May 9th. I just wanted to ask Sam and Nico, what are your guys’ initial thoughts on the hire?

SS: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s an interesting hire that almost no one really had her on the radar coming into the coaching search. You heard a lot of names come up in this couple of weeks of a process and she really didn’t come up that often. But then as soon as she was hired and people saw her background, I think everybody loved the hire, in terms of UCLA fans and just gymnastics fans in general. You know, she’s someone who comes in with over two decades of coaching experience, not a ton of experience at the collegiate level. So she coached club and elite for a while before she eventually went to Cal as an assistant coach there. But yeah, at the elite level, you know, she coached Madison Kocian, the former Bruin and she’s had a lot of success there. And it sounds like a lot of her former athletes really loved her as a coach. You know, a lot of her former athletes especially say she’s, you know, super enthusiastic and passionate. So I think that’s something that she’ll bring to the program. But yeah, in terms of her four seasons with Cal as an assistant coach, she was primarily the coach on bars, which is notable because they were one of the best bar teams in the country over those four years. They tied the top scorer ever recorded on bars in 2021. And they were the No. 1 team in the nation on that event. And just in general Cal has been really successful over the last four years. They got their first PAC 12 regular-season title this past year. They finished in seventh in nationals in 2021, which is tied for their highest-ever finish. So I think she brings, not a level of head coaching experience yet, but she brings a ton of just general coaching experience that I think could turn this program back into a top contender.

NE: Wow, Sam, those were a lot of words, just to say something that we’re all thinking here. And that this looks like a great hire on paper for UCLA. There’s really no other way to put it. Essentially, right, what we were talking about last week when we recorded the podcast is that the previous coach, Chris Waller, seems to have lost his relationships with the gymnasts a little bit. And that’s the foundation of a successful team. And what do we hear as soon as Janelle McDonald gets hired? Well, I guess “hear” is quite literal in that sense. But over Twitter, we see that all her previous athletes are just ecstatic about her getting this opportunity, even though they’re – she’s leaving their program, and she’s not going to be their coach anymore. And I think that tells us all we need to know about her as a coach and about her as a person. So we’ve both had the chance to talk to her already and that enthusiasm, that energy, that optimism has really shined through so far. And it looks like a great hire, not just on a personal level, but also as bringing in someone with experience and someone who’s willing to rebuild the program. I think we’re going to have to reassess once we know what assistant coaches are going to look like. We don’t know that at this point in time, unfortunately, obviously, she’s going to take over bars, but we don’t know what beam will look like. Hopefully the beam can stay stable like it did last year. Of course, it was a little more iffy, the previous two seasons. And then how do we continue on floor? But I think in general, she’s shown that she can make a team a star team on one of her events, and she can also nurture gymnasts and that’s what the Bruins need right now because they’re gonna have a very young team. And we have a big freshman class coming in. We’re gonna have a big sophomore class. And it looks like this is, honestly, I said it on Twitter, I’m going to say it again, it looks like it’s phenomenal hire for UCLA, just as far as like, with the information we’re working with.

SS: Yeah. And Nico, you alluded to it a little bit. But I think there is going to be kind of a transition period. In the sense that she doesn’t have a staff yet, you know, it’s to be determined whether she’s going to go with the current assistant staff, or she’s going to hire her own staff. But even then, I mean, making that transition from the assistant coach role to the head coach role is a big leap. And I think she’s coming in with a lot of energy and passion, but at the same time, she’s not used to doing the stuff that a head coach does, which is kind of more as an oversight for the team as a whole, in media duties, stuff like that. Small stuff on the side, I think will be an adjustment for her. But I think just as a person, it looks like a great hire on paper.

JC: Yeah, speaking of media duties, Sam, you sat down with her for a one on one interview right after she was hired? What did you gain from that? What did you see from her in that interview?

SS: Yeah, I mean, yeah, I would say, you could tell that she wasn’t quite used to the media side of things, which is totally expected. Because, you know, as an assistant coach, that’s not something that you’re really subject to. But right off the bat, you could definitely see everything that her former athletes have said about her. She just had a level of enthusiasm and excitement that I mean, I wouldn’t say Chris Wallace didn’t bring that you could tell he was always someone who brought enthusiasm. But I think it just sounded a little more genuine coming from her. And yeah, I don’t, I mean, I didn’t get to talk to her for all that long. But I think, you know, it reinforced everything that people have been saying about her so far.

JC: Yeah, I wanted to transition this a little bit into talking about the state of the roster right now, because obviously, McDonald can’t coach the team that doesn’t exist. You guys both kind of mentioned that the roster is in a good spot right now. It looks like they have a good recruiting class coming in. I’m not a gym expert with you guys. So Sam, what’s the deal with this incoming freshman class?

SS: Yeah, I mean, it’s not quite the same level of class that we saw last year, obviously, last year, they brought in the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country. And a lot of that had to do with athletes deferring because of the Olympics and COVID-related things. So that was a stacked class, obviously, and it’s going to be hard to match that. But this year, they have the sixth-ranked class in the nation, which is obviously, you know, nothing to scoff at, that’s a solid class in and of itself. And led by really one the top recruits in the country and I mean college gym news has ranked them as the top recruit in the country, and that’s Selena Harris, who’s a five-star recruit in a level 10 Gymnast, one of the best level 10s in the country. And she just recently tied for first place in the all-around at a level 10 nationals last weekend. And then you have Ciena Alipio as well. Not sure if I’m pronouncing that correctly, but she’s an elite gymnast who’s had a lot of experience at that level. And then Clara Wren is the last gymnast in the class so far, another level 10, who’s shown to have a solid vault. So I think it’s not quite the class they had last year, but certainly a lot of promise in those three gymnasts.

JC: And then looking at the other side of the roster, there’s quite a few seniors from this year with – some of them have do have fifth-year options. Nico, what do you gain from if the seniors are leaving? Or if they’re coming back? And just from the other nonfreshman aspects of the roster?

NE: Yes, that is a very, very good question, Jon. Because if we are adding new people to the team, people also have to have to leave because that’s just how life works. I think that the seniors people mainly care about in this case are probably Margzetta Frazier and Norah Flatley. I don’t have personally any intel on whether they are going to stay or not. And as of right now, we don’t know. The team pretty much compensated for Marz’s loss, losing Marz all of last year because of her foot injury. And so the biggest loss is really going to be Norah Flatley and her all-around performances if she does decide to leave. I do think that it’s definitely something they could make up for. If you see big steps forward from their sophomore class – so next season sophomore classes, the gymnasts that were freshmen this year – I think Brooklyn Moors is really someone to watch. She had kind of a rough first season in Westwood. If she gets more comfortable and hopefully gets more of this, and maybe develops a very good relationship with McDonald as a coach. Maybe you can see her take a huge step forward. And then obviously, I personally— right now I’m leaning toward Norah not coming back. I also, Marz maybe just because her senior season was really cut short. And her wish of getting a new coach has been fulfilled. Sekai Wright— I honestly can’t imagine Sekai coming back. She had a pretty awesome Florida team last year and was a mainstay in some lineups to some point, in some points in time, but it seems like she wants to move on from Westwood, and then Samantha Sakti, who has been such a brilliant beam worker for UCLA over the years, I think that there might be more of a situation that we saw with Pauline Tratz or Kendal Poston where she has kind of a leadership role on the team, and she takes that fifth-year option even though she may not be competing as much as she has in the past, which we saw with Poston and Tratz this year. And with that, I should mention that Tratz and Poston are definitely gone. And these are, I mean, these are— it’s kind of weird for Sam and I because these are some of the gymnasts that we’ve interviewed a ton and it’s going to be different next year, right? It’s going to definitely be different, right? Our interviews were mainly with Norah and Marz and Kendal, and we talked to them a ton. So it’s big change coming to Westwood.

SS: It’s a team that didn’t have Margzetta Frazier for the entire year last year. Pauline Tratz, Kendal Poston, they competed sparsely, but they weren’t really, you know, staples in their respective lineups either. Norah Flatley had a huge year in the all-around. So, obviously, you can’t discount losing her. That’s going to be a big loss if she does decide to move on. But really, that is the main, you know, the main floor routines you’re losing is Norah Flatley in the all-around, and then you have to remember you’re bringing back Emily Lee, one of the incoming freshmen from last year with a torn Achilles. She was, there was a chance that she was going to come back, maybe midway through last year and compete on a couple of events, but I think it was nice that they gave her a chance to rest after tearing her Achilles last June. And hopefully by next season, after a year, over a year removed from the injury, she’ll have a chance to be fully ready to go. Because I know, you know, Coach Waller had said she could be an all-rounder for them. She’s great on all four events, and she could fill that role, even in her first year. So that’ll be interesting to see. And then yeah, Nico said it well, I mean, the freshmen with a year under their belt, it makes a huge difference. I think we saw how good Jordan Chiles and Malabuyo can be in the all-around. They’ll be back in that role. Chae Campbell back in the all-around. And then even the other freshman – Brooklyn Moors, Ana Padarario – like those two as well are going to be stapled in a lot of lineups. So I don’t— I mean, they’re losing a couple of gymnasts, but I think talent-wise, they have the pieces to fill all the holes on every event to be honest.

NE: Yeah. And I think just to add something on here, I think bars next year is going to be fascinating, right? Because we have a pretty good junior class. And we had Sara Ulias, who was an amazing bars worker, and then, unfortunately, tore her ACL this year. So we don’t, obviously don’t know where she’s at in recovery. But she seems like the exact kind of gymnast that Janelle McDonald could craft into an absolutely beautiful bars artist. So I think that’s just one person to watch and I want to put on your radars.

JC: With all this in mind, thinking about the new coach, the roster in the state that it is, what are your guys’ expectations for this team next year? Because obviously, they missed nationals back to back years. Last two years can kind of be characterized as a disappointment. So do you think they’re going to make it back to that national stage? Or what do you guys think? Let’s start with Nico.

NE: Ooh, big questions here, Jon. So I don’t know exactly how to answer this because I think it’s hard to give predictions on a coach that I’ve only talked to for all 15 minutes so far. Sam, I’m very jealous that you got to sit down one-on-one with her. But we will ignore that for the time being. I do think that they will take a step forward. And that is just because I could see Marz coming back and still stepping into a leadership role. I could see that happening. Even if she doesn’t, I think this sophomore class, next year’s sophomore class, so we’re talking Jordan, we’re talking Emma, we’re talking Ana, we’re talking Brooklyn, I think they are going to take a big step forward and really become the heart and soul of this team. And if they manage to do that and manage to stay healthy and manage to stay consistent, I think they’re going to have a very, very strong regular season. I think they might be able– you know, they always play up when they go against Utah. We see the best meets when they go against Utah. If they can beat Utah next year, in Salt Lake, I could see a Pac-12 championship in the cards for this team. Nationals, I don’t think they make it to the final four. I don’t think they’re quite there yet. I think when Chae and Frieda and Sara and that class are seniors, so two years from now, then maybe they’ll be back in that top floor. But as of now, I’m willing to say they make it back to nationals and they are going to be Pac-12 champions.

SS: Yeah. I mean, it’s easy to forget that this was a team that was .025 points away from making nationals this year. And obviously, you know, maybe you could say they overperformed this year, but either way, I think it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be able to improve on that going into next year. I think especially if you have somebody like Chae Campbell, Jordan Chiles and Emma Malabuyo, you’re taking up three all-around spots. You know, that’s half of your routines right there. I think if you can pencil those in every week, it’s hard to imagine that this team isn’t going to be really solid. Obviously, the coaching piece is kind of a wildcard, but I think everybody loved the hire so I can’t imagine that it’s going to be much of a hurdle to clear either despite the fact that there might be a little bit of a transition period at the beginning of the season. But yeah, I mean, I’m kind of with Nico here. I don’t know if they’re going to make that final four. But I think they’ll be back to nationals and they could compete for a Pac-12 championship. I don’t know if they can compete with Utah. Utah is looking like maybe one of the top teams, if not the top team, going into next season. But, yeah, they’ll certainly be back in that conversation. I think they’ll kind of surprise some people next year.

NE: Yeah, I’m totally with Sam. And I don’t mean to be cynical here. But, right, you talked about the coach being a wildcard. If we’re talking about the coach being a wildcard, we have to also ask ourselves, could it actually be worse than last year? And I think the answer to that is, hopefully, fingers crossed, a resounding no because I don’t think it can’t get any worse than what we just saw. Because last season was really, really just strenuous for the entire team.

JC: Yeah, well, let’s hope that better days are on the horizon for UCLA gymnastics, but that is going to wrap us up here today. I want to thank Nico and Sam again, Sam has a Celtics game to go watch. I have a class to go to. So we’re ending this now. Shoutout again to Zoe and Kyle for producing this podcast. And yeah, that’ll do it for us. As always, “Out of Bounds” is brought to you by the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper. You can listen to this show and others by the Daily Bruin on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud, and a transcript for this show is always available with dailybruin.com Thanks, everyone.

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Jon Christon | Sports senior staff
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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.
Nico Edgar | Sports staff
Edgar is currently a Sports staffer on the gymnastics beat. He was previously a contributor on the men's tennis beat.
Edgar is currently a Sports staffer on the gymnastics beat. He was previously a contributor on the men's tennis beat.
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