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UCLA gymnastics builds team spirit, No. 1 recruit Selena Harris prepares to compete

Members of UCLA gymnastics form a huddle during a meet at Pauley Pavilion in 2022. The Bruins will unofficially kick off their season with an intrasquad Thursday. (Esther Ma/Daily Bruin staff)

By Sam Settleman

Dec. 15, 2022 12:13 p.m.

A surprise trip to Disneyland, a bonfire at the beach, a Friendsgiving.

When Janelle McDonald became the Bruins’ head coach in May, she marked building personal relationships with her student-athletes as her first priority. Seven months and many team-building experiences later, that focus remains the same.

“We’ve been pretty intentional, especially at the beginning of preseason, to get out of the gym and do some fun things together,” McDonald said.

No. 10 UCLA gymnastics will unofficially begin its season Thursday at Pauley Pavilion with its annual Meet the Bruins intrasquad. But ahead of its first meet of the season, the blue and gold kicked off another new tradition for the 2023 season.

The whole team got together for lunch Wednesday afternoon, a ritual it will continue before every meet this season.

“The team is really connecting, and that’s something that I’m really, really proud of,” McDonald said.

UCLA underwent a major change in the offseason with the departure of former coach Chris Waller in April and the subsequent arrival of McDonald in May. McDonald rounded out her staff by the end of June, retaining assistant coach BJ Das and adding Kyle Grable and Autumn Grable to the fold.

Since then, the Bruins and their new coaches have made a concerted effort to create bonding experiences among the team. Sophomore Emma Malabuyo, who hosted the Friendsgiving, said the team culture has flourished under the new staff.

“I definitely think we’re going through a lot of adjustments, but Janelle is a very passionate coach, and I think all of these coaches really care about gymnastics so much,” Malabuyo said. “Overall, I’m really happy with the team culture.”

For Malabuyo and freshman Selena Harris, one aspect of McDonald’s coaching style stands out: Omnipresent optimism.

“She’s running on that coffee, so she’s super lit in the gym most of the time,” Harris said. “She’s just always happy.”

(Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)
Sophomore Emma Malabuyo poses on beam. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

A new No. 1 in Westwood

As the No. 1 recruit in her class, Harris had no shortage of options during the recruitment process.

The Las Vegas native ultimately settled on the Bruins – and even when the coaching staff that had once recruited Harris left Westwood, her commitment in the program never wavered.

“I told myself when I was going to commit to a school, I was going to stay there because I made a commitment. So I’m going to work through whatever is thrown at me, and I will try my best to make the best out of everything,” Harris said.

Harris’ journey to Westwood included a brief stint in elite gymnastics and an accomplished Level 10 career, culminating in first-place finishes in the all-around, vault, bars and floor at the 2022 Level 10 championships.

But despite all the acclaim she’s earned across her gymnastics career, Harris still finds herself star-struck from time to time when she walks into the gym with her new team.

“Girls that I’ve watched on YouTube, now I’m training with them,” Harris said. “I felt like I had to kind of change how I worked out because I’m training against such huge gymnasts that went to the Olympics.”

For Malabuyo – an Olympic alternate in her own right – that respect is mutual.

“Just watching Selena just grow and watching her amazing gymnastics right in front of me, it’s really awesome just to be training with her,” Malabuyo said.

After winning eight Level 10 titles throughout her career, Harris figures to be a contributor on all four events for the Bruins in her freshman season, according to McDonald.

The first-year head coach said Harris has already made a smooth transition to the collegiate level.

“(Harris is) going to be an impact all-arounder for us,” McDonald said. “She has transitioned beautifully to college gymnastics, and I think the fans are going to be really excited with her energy and her performance level.”

The first opportunity for UCLA fans to see the No. 1 recruit in the nation in action will come Thursday at the Bruins’ intrasquad, prior to the blue and gold officially kicking off its season in Harris’ own hometown of Vegas on Jan. 7.

With her debut on the horizon, the five-star freshman said she doesn’t feel the pressure of being the No. 1 recruit in the country or the nerves of making her first appearance in front of a Pauley Pavilion audience.

“I love competing. It’s my favorite thing ever,” Harris said. “I just feel like my brain just shuts off, and I just enjoy every second I’m out there.”

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Sam Settleman | Sports editor
Settleman was the 2022-2023 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 was the 2022-2023 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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