Out of Bounds: Evaluating UCLA Gymnastics’ Offseason
In this episode of “Out of Bounds,” Daily Bruin’s sports podcast, Sports Editor Sam Settleman and staff writer Nico Edgar grade UCLA gymnastics’ offseason performance.
Sam Settleman: Hi, my name is Sam Settleman and this is “Out of Bounds,” Daily Bruin’s sports podcast.
SS: Welcome back to another episode of “Out of Bounds.” Today we’ve got another big gymnastics episode planned. Lots to talk about this offseason. I’m Sam, I’m the Sports editor. Today I’m joined by Nico, longtime gymnastics beat reporter. Nico, how are you doing today?
Nico Edgar: What’s up, Sam? I’m doing fantastic. I’m traveling out of Scandinavia. I truly feel like one of UCLA gymnastics’ international fans right now. It’s very interesting because I’m doing this from Sweden. So I’m like eight and a half hours ahead of you, and it’s the middle of the night. But I’m great. That’s the point.
SS: There you go. There you have it. Anyways, we got a lot to talk about today. So we’ll get right into it. Just a quick rundown of this offseason for UCLA gymnastics. Obviously, the big news to kick it off: Chris Waller, three-time head coach— three-year head coach, longtime assistant coach, resigned in April. And then quickly after that early in May, Janelle McDonald, an assistant coach from Cal, was hired as the new head coach. And then at the end of May, we had Norah Flatley – Bruin legend, obviously – she transferred to Arkansas for her final year. And then recently, we had Margzetta Frazier announcing her return to UCLA for a fifth season. So, Nico, what are your thoughts on how this offseason has played out so far for UCLA gymnastics?
NE: So I’m going to take a very unique approach to this, Sam. You know, I just graduated from UCLA. I was part of this big system in the U.S. called college, where people get grades all the time. So I think we should assign a grade to the offseason. And I’m pretty confident at least giving it a B-plus. Throw in American grade inflation, let’s give it an A-minus. I think really the only qualm you can have at the offseason is that Norah Flatley is going to Arkansas, and you’re losing a leader and probably your MVP from last year, right? That’s the biggest thing. I’m sure she has reasons for going to Arkansas. I’m a little bit surprised that Marz actually decided to come back after Norah left because we know that they are BFFs. But overall, really, there’s not a lot to complain about. We did an episode on how awesome we think McDonald can be as a coach, not only because she’s going to be able to nurture the gymnasts and really let them grow into their potential but also because of the rapport she’s going to be able to build. I think one other thing when the coaching staff came out, one other thing that was surprising is that we saw the promotion of BJ Das actually as kind of the only carryover from the previous coaching staff under Chris Waller. And she’s going to be in a full-time role now. I’m very interested to see how that goes. She doesn’t have as much experience as a lot of the other coaches that McDonald probably could have recruited to Westwood. So it’s definitely going to be an experiment, but we know that she’s had an amazing impact on all the gymnasts, especially on floor and when it comes to choreography, but I know McDonald said that she is also very qualified in other aspects. So I think that was a little bit surprising. And then the Grables coming in to round out the staff, coming from elite – it kind of fits what they’re doing with McDonald and really bringing in a lot of, you know, fresh faces without grabbing too much from the college ranks. So I think it’s definitely going to be a growing process. But it’s an experiment that UCLA looks like they wanted to try. And I think it’s a good step for the program.
SS: Yeah, you said B-plus, A-minus, I’m going to go A. I like to consider myself an optimist, but I’m going to say this offseason has been an A so far for UCLA gymnastics. I think obviously, you said it, Norah is the big loss, considering the way she performed for this team last year. But heading into this offseason, I don’t think you would say you would expect her to come back. Whether she graduated, moved on or transferred somewhere else, I think it was kind of expected that she wouldn’t be back in the blue and gold next year. But that being said, I think the coaching staff looks like a home-run hire so far. I mean, just in talking to Janelle and also seeing, I think Margzetta Frazier coming back is a huge indication to what this coaching staff can bring because, you know, she had a tough injury last year that kept her out for a lot of the year, but she was also clearly disgruntled with the coaching staff and the program. So the fact that, you know, she was willing to come back and play and compete for this team one more year, I think, says a lot about what this coaching staff can bring. And obviously, the talent is obviously always there. So yeah, I think as good an offseason as it could have been for UCLA, but we’ll see how it plays out next year. But speaking of Margzetta Frazier, let’s talk about that a little bit more. Talked about the injury. If you don’t remember, first meet of the season last year in Minnesota on her bars routine, that’s her event, but she— her foot collided with a low bar during that routine. Ended up being a broken foot, kept her out for the entire season. But even though UCLA had some success without her last year, it’s easy to forget that, you know, she’s a three-time All-American on bars. She’s hit all 92 of her collegiate routines without a fall, which is quite incredible. And she was a first-team All Pac-12 member as an all-arounder in her junior season in 2021. So she’s not only an incredible gymnast but also a big leader for this team as one of those veteran members of this team and now going to be in her fifth year. So Nico what is Margzetta Frazier coming back bringing to this team?
NE: Yeah, let’s talk about Marz because it’s— I think, first of all, it’s vital to reinforce how awesome of an achievement it is for the coaching staff that Marz is back. And obviously, you and I don’t have all the intricacies of what was going on there. We don’t have all the insights of the team, but we do know that they definitely played an important role because Marz is a character. We’ve both interviewed her – she’s an awesome person to be around, awesome person to talk to, and she is a strong leader in that clubhouse, and she is very strong and open about her opinions and how she feels about issues ranging from gymnastics to social issues. And I think the coaching staff being able to bring her back in cannot be understated on how big of an achievement that is. Because that lays such a strong foundation for the next year. You’re bringing in not only the leader in the clubhouse, and as a team as a whole, someone who the whole team can rally around, someone who the whole team will listen to. If, you know, you have a meet where things go south, like last year in Minnesota, you know – there are definitely people who rallied around Marz after that meet and after that injury. And you’re also bringing in someone who completely stabilizes this team as an all-arounder in every single meet, providing that she stays healthy. And, boy, you know, I know we hope she stays healthy because it wasn’t fun for her last year, being injured all season – and she was really open about her injury and her recovery process – but at the end, you know, she just didn’t make it back. And I’m sure when it came to nationals, she wanted to be out on the floor with the rest of the team. So, you know, you’re stabilizing the team, both from not only a team aspect but also from the athletic aspect to an extent that it was honestly unimaginable, you know, if we go back, six, seven months, right? There was no indication of Marz returning. And really, you have to give huge props to Janelle McDonald and her staff for getting Marz back on board, getting her to buy in. And, also, you know, give Marz a lot of credit for wanting to come back to Westwood and have a senior season probably the way she imagined after last year was essentially the opposite of that. What we should end this with is, right, we’re doing grades? If Mars doesn’t come back to UCLA, right, we still have – the team is still stacked, right? You still have Jordan Chiles. You have an amazing sophomore class with Emma Malabuyo and Moors and Padurariu. But if Marz doesn’t come back, that grade probably drops, you know, a whole letter grade, right? You’re down to the B-C range. Because you just don’t have that leadership, you don’t know where it’s going to come from. And Marz really gives you a vocal leader and enthusiastic leader at all times. And it’s just going to have huge impacts for the team. So I was— when I saw that, I was a little bit surprised. But, you know, now it’s just, UCLA’s gymnastic stock is trending up.
SS: You mentioned it briefly, but I think it’s important to note that, I mean, we talked about the coaching staff and how big it is for them to be able to get Margzetta Frazier back and what it says about what this coaching staff is maybe going to bring to the program. But at the end of the day, this was Margzetta Frazier’s decision through and through. And so her willingness to come back, whether that was motivated by her missing her senior season or whatever it may be, the fact that she still thinks she has gymnastics left in the tank to give to this team and this program, I think, is a big deal. And she’s probably going to have a huge year this year after that injury last year.
NE: And Sam, let’s be real, they need her on bars. They need Marz on bars.
SS: Yes. As we know, that was not a strong event for this team last year. So with Marz back in the fold next year, I think that might take a turn for the better for them this year. But yeah, let’s move on to talk about some of the other student-athletes on this team. Jordan Chiles, who’s going to be a sophomore next year, and Ciena Alipio, who’s going to be a freshman next year, both had some big competitions recently competing back on the elite scene. Ciena was at the U.S. Classic at the beginning of August. She placed ninth in the all-around there. And then both of them were at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Tampa this past weekend, as we’re recording this at least. Ciena was 17th in the all-around there, but she had a second-place finish on beam. I know a lot of people are excited about what she’s going to bring to this team on beam. Especially the past couple of seasons, not so much last year, but past couple of seasons, beam has not been a strong point for the Bruins. So she’ll be a big help, I think, there. And then Jordan Chiles, obviously, you know, an Olympian and all that, you know, she has the qualifications to be one of the best gymnasts in the world. She finished third in the all-around there and on bars and floor. So yeah, obviously big, big events for them. Nico, what do you think this experience kind of helps them with as they move on to their collegiate season next year?
NE: Well, that’s the question, right? For Ciena Alipio, I think it’s great, right? The more really high-level experience you can get in before coming to college, which is a whole new environment, is great in any way. And I think, you know, we had Janelle McDonald and BJ Das, they were both in Tampa, they watched her place second on beam, which they were probably really excited about because, I’ve already mentioned, but UCLA is going to be stacked on beam. But I think, honestly, in that all-around finish for Alipio, you know, you want to see where she can contribute and how well her skills are going to go from an elite competition into college, which is probably a more, I mean, it’s hard to call gymnastics relaxed, but a more team-oriented and honestly, probably more fun environment for a lot of gymnasts. So I think that’s, when it comes to Alipio, in that case, it’s definitely, you know, more experience is beneficial. I think when it comes to Jordan, knowing her from a lot of interviews last year and kind of getting an impression of character, we both know that she is super competitive and that she absolutely has this drive that she wants to be the best, right? You go back to the scene where she broke down after getting a 10 at Pauley for the first time. Yeah. You know that she wants to be the best. We saw that she was frustrated at times when it wasn’t going the way she wanted her freshman season at UCLA. And, I think for her, she just needs gymnastics, right? Her body can definitely handle it. She’s probably one of the strongest gymnasts I’ve ever seen. And I think that she just wants to be out there, no matter what, right? As long as her body can handle it and she can put herself in a position to be successful on an individual level and continue to push herself, push her skills – I think that can only have positive effects when she comes back to UCLA because that drive essentially is going to be able to carry over to everybody else on the team. And that’s what you want, right? The more experience she has, the better of a leader she’s going to be for the team. Definitely, I think it’s really positive that they’ve been competing elite. Obviously, the one worry is, you know, you don’t want them to overdo it, especially in Jordan’s case, right? Because if anything happens to Jordan, that is such a huge loss for the team. But at the end of the day, right, it’s her decision, it’s her career, and she should go out and compete in any way that she sees fit, as long as, you know, her coaches are OK with it and are going to support that. So really, it’s just going to help the team in the long run, right? You get this kind of more probably— I mean, right, we hear about how competitive elite is, how it mentally strengthens you on this individual level. And bringing that mindset in and refreshing that, especially during the offseason, is going to be beneficial for the team, especially when Jordan returns in winter.
SS: I think you said it perfectly. Jordan is going to be at the World Championships in late October, early November, you know, she’s probably going to take most of her classes in the fall online and rejoin the team, kind of in that December range, a month before the season gets going. Which is obviously, you know, not ideal from a team standpoint. You’d like to have your whole team in Westwood, training, ready to go. But I talked to Janelle last week, and before the U.S. Championships, and I mean, she said the same thing you just said. Jordan loves gymnastics, you know, she needs gymnastics, she feels like she still has a lot more to give to the sport, whether that’s at the collegiate level or at the elite level. So having this opportunity to compete at the highest level, even after she went to the Olympics and even after she accomplished everything she probably ever could have dreamed of accomplishing, I think it’s really big for her and I think it’s going to continue to give her confidence as she moves on to come back for the 2023 season. But since we’re talking about the next season, I know this is a segment that you were excited about doing. Let’s talk about some potential lineups for next year. I think you recently tweeted out about all the options this team has on beam. So let’s start there. What do you think, you know, on beam, what kind of options and depth does this team have?
NE: They’re going to have a roster crunch because you have three rising sophomores with Ana Padurariu, Emily Lee and Emma Malabuyo, who are essentially good enough on beam that they should be lineup locks, right? You have Harris coming in as a recruit. You have Chae Campbell, who was essentially on beam all year last year, who is an all-arounder. You have Jordan, who was on beam as an all-arounder last year. And then you have Marz coming back. You have Frida Esparza, who we know can work beam. And then you have Ciena Alipio, who just placed second at the U.S. Championships. So you have a lot of options, and that’s great. The more options you have, the better. And— but at the same time, right, you don’t want to stunt any growth by keeping people out of the lineup consistently. So I think one thing that we could see there is maybe rotation, keeping people fresh, not having to rely on three gymnasts doing the all-around like we saw last season every week, and maybe pulling Chae Campbell out of the beam lineup. Maybe pulling Jordan out of the beam lineup. I’m sure she wouldn’t be happy about that. But I think we could see some more rotation. So what I jotted down here is leading off with Emily Lee. You know, we saw her at some meets last year practicing on beam a few times, and she looked good. She looked healthy during her rehab. Then going second, we have Ciena Alipio. Third, Frazier. Fourth, Harris, Chiles and then anchoring Malabuyo because we know what her potential is on beam, right? The sky’s the limit there.
SS: Yeah. I mean, I think, yeah, the depth is evident not only on beam but across all four events. And we would talk about more events, but we’ll leave it with just that sneak peek because I think, Nico, if I let you talk about all four events, we could go on forever. So we’ll wrap it up there for today. As always, “Out of Bounds” is brought to you by the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper. I’d like to thank Kyle for helping us produce this podcast today. 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 on dailybruin.com. Thanks, everyone.