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UCLA gymnastics harnesses team mentality in preparation for NCAA championships

Sophomore Ana Padurariu poses during a beam routine. Padurariu and No. 5 UCLA gymnastics will begin NCAA championships competition Thursday evening. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin staff)

Gymnastics


NCAA Semifinal II
Thursday, 6 p.m.

Fort Worth, Texas
ESPN2
NCAA Final
Saturday, 1 p.m.

Fort Worth, Texas
ABC

By Benjamin Royer

April 11, 2023 11:06 p.m.

Janelle McDonald understands the stakes of competing in Fort Worth, Texas.

The former California assistant coach traveled to nationals alongside the Golden Bears in 2021, finishing third in the semifinal and giving her a taste of the competition that lies ahead Thursday night at Dickies Arena.

Now leading No. 5 UCLA gymnastics, McDonald will encounter No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Utah and No. 7 Kentucky in the second NCAA semifinal for a potential trip to the national championship. Although the Bruins’ first NCAA title in five years is within reach, the rookie coach said advancing to the final stage Saturday is the first step.

“We have goals,” McDonald said. “We want to be competing on the final night of the national championships, and I feel like we have the team to do that.”

However, McDonald’s objectives at the very beginning of her tenure did not explicitly include nationals.

When she came to Westwood in May, McDonald said team culture and bonding were her top priorities in developing a roster. Through conversations, meetings and meet performances across the season, nationals came more and more in focus, starting with the season-opening Super 16 meet, McDonald added.

“Conversations about getting to nationals really started to happen organically,” McDonald said. “Our first meet out of the gate was against some of the top teams in the country, and for us to hang with them and compete strong against them was an eye-opener for this team to really have belief.”

Aside from sophomore Jordan Chiles and junior Chae Campbell, who have competed as individuals at the NCAA championships, redshirt senior Margzetta Frazier is the only Bruin to have appeared at nationals alongside the team as a whole, doing so as a freshman in 2019.

[Related: Margzetta Frazier turns struggles and tears into ‘best year’ with UCLA gymnastics]

Frazier holds the most postseason experience on the roster. Two years ago, the fifth-year student-athlete competed on bars as an individual at nationals, while in 2019 she scored a 9.900 and a 9.850 on the event in the NCAA semifinal and final, respectively.

The New Jersey native said that looking back on her first nationals and previous postseason experience, she can help guide the team in Fort Worth.

“My freshman-year nationals – I remember everything like I was there yesterday,” Frazier said. “There’s a lot of pressure. I just want to keep guiding the team from behind like I have been this whole year (and) giving them veteran advice.”

Nationals provide a make-or-break environment in which every routine in every event can shift the result of the meet. At the final of the NCAA Los Angeles Regional, UCLA fell behind Missouri by 0.200 and headed into the third rotation in third place.

Needing high scores in their final two events, the Bruins set a season-high 49.700 on floor while ending on their second-highest vault score of the season to advance to the NCAA championships.

Sophomore Ana Padurariu said the team was reflecting on missing out on nationals in previous seasons and even likened the qualifying process to Olympic qualifiers.

“A lot of girls went through the process of not making it to nationals for years in a row,” Padurariu said. “They put a lot of pressure on themselves to want to make it, and I knew we were more than capable.”

Opponent-wise, the Bruins will face off against the Sooners, Red Rocks and Wildcats in Thursday’s NCAA semifinal.

UCLA scored below Utah in all three meets against the Red Rocks this year but finished the regionals phase with a higher combined score between the regional semifinal and final than any team in the nation.

Oklahoma, however, defeated UCLA in the 2019 NCAA championships. The blue and gold will get its first shot at retribution in the postseason since three years ago.

No matter the result Thursday, and possibly the NCAA finals Saturday, McDonald said for the team, just competing is a dream come true.

“For a lot of people on our team, they grew up watching UCLA gymnastics go to nationals and win championships,” McDonald said. “They’ve dreamed as a little gymnast of being a part of that.”

UCLA will compete in the second NCAA semifinal at 6 p.m. at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth. The meet will be televised on ESPN2.

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Benjamin Royer | Alumnus
Royer was the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was also a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats in 2022-2023. He studied communication and graduated in 2024.
Royer was the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was also a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats in 2022-2023. He studied communication and graduated in 2024.
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