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Sam Settles It: UCLA gymnastics will regain former glory with help of new talent, more experience

(Ashley Ko/Daily Bruin staff)

By Sam Settleman

June 4, 2022 12:07 p.m.

Legacy.

It’s a word that’s seemingly become synonymous with UCLA gymnastics. And while legacies typically are neither invincible nor irreversible, the blue and gold’s status atop the sport rankings isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

UCLA is one of the greatest programs in the history of collegiate gymnastics. Boasting seven NCAA championships, some of the most accomplished athletes to ever take the competition floor and a legacy of eye-popping gymnastics, the Bruins are a historical powerhouse.

But right now, that’s all it is – history.

People will always talk about UCLA. They’ll talk about the talent, they’ll talk about the floor routines, they’ll talk about the legacy. But when you miss nationals in back-to-back years, that foundational legacy begins to fade. Over the past 12 years, UCLA has one title to its name.

Luckily for the Bruins, that won’t be the case for very long.

UCLA is on the brink of a new era, one that’s poised to bring them right back to the top of the sport, where they belong.

Based on the way they’re trending, there’s reason to believe the Bruins are still many years removed from being a true contender, but context is important here. Yes, every member of the 2018 championship squad will likely be gone next year. But make no mistake, this team has the making to reach that status in a hurry.

Let’s take a look at the last UCLA team to win a title. Christine Peng-Peng Lee – who scored two perfect 10s in the title-winning meet, including the clincher in the anchor spot on beam – was a redshirt senior. Katelyn Ohashi, a junior at the time, posted a pair of 9.95s in the NCAA championship. And the Bruins got some big contributions from then-sophomores Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian and Felicia Hano.

Winning a championship takes talent, but it also takes experience.

UCLA found itself on the verge of a nationals berth in 2021 despite having to count on two freshmen and a sophomore in the all-around. That won’t be the case next year, as Jordan Chiles, Emma Malabuyo and Chae Campbell will all have another year of experience under their belts.

With each member of that trio capable of going 39.5-plus in the all-around week in and week out, UCLA will have few holes to fill – and ample talent to do so. Former five-star recruit Emily Lee should be back to full strength in 2023 after a torn Achilles tendon forced her to take a redshirt year, while Brooklyn Moors and Ana Padurariu will continue to build on impressive freshman campaigns.

(Antonio Martinez/Daily Bruin staff)
Members of UCLA gymnastics celebrate during a meet against Stanford. (Antonio Martinez/Daily Bruin staff)

The Bruins are also set to add even more talent with the top recruit in the country, Selena Harris, coming to Westwood next year. UCLA should never have a shortage of talent given its reputation, and that seems to be the case once again.

But talent wasn’t the problem for the Bruins a season ago. Coaching was. It’s tough to reach your true potential when some of the leaders on your team are calling for your head coach to be fired.

[Related: UCLA gymnast Margzetta Frazier calls for coaching change amid hostile environment]

However, the coaching controversy should now be in the rearview mirror for UCLA. In May, it hired former California assistant coach Janelle McDonald to take over the program from coach Chris Waller.

McDonald’s energy and passion should gel perfectly with the upbeat nature of the Bruins and be the perfect fit to reinvigorate UCLA’s legacy. On the technical side, McDonald has proven herself to be one of the top coaches in the country, helping the Golden Bears reach new heights over the past four seasons with some of their best finishes in program history.

But championship teams aren’t built overnight. UCLA won’t just waltz into 2023 and be title contenders again. It may take a year or two for this Bruin core to reach its peak.

Unlike the past couple years, however, the seed has been planted.

The talent is unquestionable, the experience is mounting and there is a premier head coach to put it all together.

UCLA gymnastics is ready to blossom.

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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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