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Q&A: UCLA gymnastics coach Janelle McDonald discusses second season with Bruins

Coach Janelle McDonald smiles out toward the Pauley Pavilion crowd. (Joseph Jimenez/Photo editor)

By Aaron Doyle, Isabelle Friedman, Benjamin Royer, Genevieve Trimbell, and Samantha Garcia

Dec. 11, 2023 12:39 p.m.

Less than a week away from Meet the Bruins and under a month away from UCLA gymnastics’ first meet of the 2024 season, coach Janelle McDonald sat down with the Daily Bruin gymnastics beat ahead of her second year in charge of the program to discuss new and returning gymnasts, team culture, event improvements and more.

Benjamin Royer: Coming into this season – compared to last year – where are some improvements you’ve seen, whether on events or within the squad as a whole?

Janelle McDonald: I think as a whole, culture is way more dialed in. I think last year, this time, that was something that we were really working on, but didn’t quite have. And now I feel like our culture is in such a good place that we’re able to hold each other accountable, really have fun every day in the gym and push each other to be the best that they can be. And I think that that’s something that has made this preseason, really special and something that I think is going to take us far this season.

Aaron Doyle: I know it’s early – you haven’t had Meet the Bruins yet – but what can you say about how the team is looking so far?

JM: I think the energy, you know – I’m a big energy person. For me, seeing them come in with energy every morning and really put their heart into what they’re doing is something that has stood out to me. And just seeing their belief grow throughout the preseason, and what we can accomplish and showing up for each other is some of the highlights so far this preseason.

AD: With having a successful year under your belt, is your perspective heading into the season different than it was last year?

JM: I do think it’s different because last year, everything we did was new together. This year, we have better relationships with each other. Our culture – like I talked about – is a little bit more dialed in. I feel like we can approach it differently because we know each other a lot better. As far as expectation goes, I want our team to be prepared to be the best that they can be. And I want them to have a great experience and that hasn’t changed from last year. And so I think for us, as a coaching staff, just making sure that they’re prepared to do that. And then I think we’re going to have a pretty successful year.

Isabelle Friedman: It sounded like you all were working toward more 10.0 start values in the vault lineup. What changes can we expect to see there?

JM: We have quite a few 10.0 values in the work. We brought in three freshmen that all are doing 10.0 start values on vault, so we’re pretty excited about that. And then we also have transfer (graduate student) Nya Reed that came in this year. She’s a fifth-year from Florida who has a 10.0 start value on vault as well – Yurchenko 1.5. And then we’re bringing back obviously Selena’s (sophomore Selena Harris) and Brooklyn (junior Brooklyn Moors) and (sophomore) Clara Wren as well. So we do have quite a few. We got some great fulls too going. Chae (senior Chae Campbell), I think, is maybe one of the only All-Americans on vault that’s doing a full. She does it really, really well. So we’re excited to have her vault back as well. And so we really feel like that’s an area that we’re going show some improvement this year, which we’re very excited about.

IF: There are a few newcomers to the team this year, including freshmen and transfer students. How have they been adjusting to UCLA, and what impact are they making on the team?

JM: All four of them have just been an amazing fit for our team. Nya brings incredible energy, and she has the experience and the maturity to really show up as an amazing teammate and somebody that all of the girls on our team can count on and rely on and get advice from. And so for us, just having her has just been an amazing addition to our culture and our team. Our freshmen bring great energy – all three of them. They’re excited about everything we’re doing, and they bring a lot of joy and enthusiasm into practice every day. So I’m really, really excited for them to get the experience to start with Meet the Bruins next week, but then just experience this first season with us as a Bruin.

BR: Team bonding was an important part of your first year here, getting the culture set up, as you’ve mentioned. How has that aspect come along this season?

JM: Yeah, I think because we all know each other we know the things that they like to do together and so I think that’s been fun. Our team’s really close and they’d like to hang out outside of the gym. They like to do things together. They like to be in it together. And for us, we love to get out of the gym and spend time together. We have our team holiday party coming up and things like that and then excited to get on the road as well and get to spend that extra time together.

Genevieve Trimbell: What are you most excited for UCLA fans to watch this season?

JM: I’m excited for them to see the level of our gymnastics, the way we execute it and the joy we have out on the competition floor. I think that’s something that fans have come to know about UCLA gymnastics, is that you’re going to see a lot of energy. You’re going to see some great performances, but you’re going to see a lot of joy in what they do. And I’m excited for them to get to experience that again this year.

Samantha Garcia: John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success highlights critical characteristics needed for success and has been ingrained into the UCLA athletics community. Which characteristics do you find most important for your team to have?

JM: One we actually talk about a lot is competitive greatness. It’s at the top of the pyramid and I believe it’s there for a reason, and it’s not something I think that is looked at as pressure. I think it’s something that it’s – be at your best when your best is needed and enjoyment of a difficult challenge – and I really think that’s something that we talk about on our team a lot, is that everything we’re doing is hard. It’s hard to be a student here. It’s hard to be an athlete here and to do it and really trying to do it to strive to be the best that you can be, especially in those big moments is what makes it so special. And so for us, we talk about having that competitive greatness and grit to be able to be at your best for yourself and for your team, your university and the things you get to represent here.

SG: What are the overall goals for the team this year? Do you have any personal goals for you as a coach?

JM: Our team is talking about being on the floor and the final four at the end of the season. And kind of what we’ve been talking about together as a team is that I know their goals are very high. But we need to sort of be more process-oriented and how we get there and so that so each checkpoint, our team is making goals for Meet the Bruins per se and then, we’re going to look at the first competition and make goals for that to just really be process-oriented and be able to control the things that we’re able to control. We can’t control scores and all of that kind of stuff, but we can always control how we show up, how we react, how we show grit and perseverance through adversity and things like that. So we’re really trying to be very process-oriented, but our team has a lot of belief and has some big goals for this season.

SG: How do you build relationships with each individual athlete, and what are the benefits of having strong coach and athlete connections?

JM: Probably the most important thing is just having good communication. And I think when you open good communication, you can really get to know somebody, and you get to know what fires them up, what stresses them out and everything in between. And so I think it’s really important to have that open communication with each athlete to be able to see how you can help them be the best that they can be. I really feel like if you have a kink in the communication, that’s when problems start to arise, and that’s when you’re going to hit some roadblocks with your athletes. And so we’re always constantly trying to you know, read the room and check in and have meaningful conversations to help us all be on the same page and moving forward in a positive way.

AD: With Jordan Chiles and Ana Padurariu deferring to train for the Olympics, who are some of the athletes you expect to step up and fill their shoes on bars and beam?

JM: Yeah, so on bars, Katelyn Rosen is one of our freshmen. She’s phenomenal on bars. She’s doing really well. (Senior) Sara Ulias is somebody who’s getting her routine back together, so I anticipate that she’ll be making some appearances in the lineups as well. And then (senior) Frida Esparza. Having her back in the bar lineup is going to be huge for us. I think she’s one of the best bar swingers in the NCAA and I’m excited for her to get to showcase her routine and the work she’s been putting in. On beam, we have a lot of people training to be in that lineup, which is great to see. I feel like building confidence and our depth there is something that’s really important. (Graduate student) Emma Andres is somebody that’s been really stepping up. Moors is just beautiful up there, and she’s getting dialed in as well. So I definitely think that we’re going to get to see some new faces on those events, which I think is going to be really exciting for our team.

AD: Reflecting back on last season, what do you think you would have done differently – if anything – in your first year as head coach?

JM: Yeah, I try to look at areas for growth, not necessarily things I would do over again because I always try to approach things with the best intent, and I think when you do that, you’re going to always have experiences to learn from. For me, I think that I learned culture is something that’s always evolving and you have to constantly be working on it. That’s something that we’ve been trying to really dial in and stay on top of this year, which I think we’ve had some really positive results with where our teams are because of that. For me, just staying more present, I think, is probably the most the most important thing is be where your feet are and take things as they come in. You know, just be excited for what’s ahead.

BR: We noticed in practice that Nya brings a lot of energy. In the recruitment process, what were you seeing from her that you identified her as someone who could contribute to the team?

JM: When she had first reached out, I obviously knew she was a great athlete on a couple events. She’s had a lot of success on vault and floor in particular, and those were some holes we wanted to fill with Jordan stepping out this year and things like that, and then vault, obviously, wanting to add more depth this year. And when I first got on the phone with her, I was really impressed with her maturity and with everything that she had been through, she’s really grown into this incredible young woman who is wanting to do gymnastics for the right reasons and wanting to show up as a great teammate and for me, that, in addition to her wanting to bolster her degree and all of those kinds of things, I felt like she could be a really good fit. Then, we kind of had some follow-up conversations. She got on the phone with BJ (assistant coach BJ Das) and in our conversations we were really impressed with what we heard. And so we brought her out to campus and hands down, our team said, “We want her. Bring her on our team.” She’s such a great fit and she has been that and more. She absolutely has helped our culture. She’s helped the mindset of different teammates and she just brings amazing energy and hard work to every practice and we couldn’t ask for more from her.

BR: Last year, you had a few athletes that were out for most of the year. What’s the overall health of the squad? Are there any athletes that are working towards a midseason entrance or what does it look like right now?

JM: We’re doing pretty good. We have had a couple setbacks in the fall here, but I anticipate that the squad is getting healthier, which is great. And there’s going to be some that might have a little bit slower start, but for the most part, I think we’re looking pretty good as far as that’s concerned. Things are on the up-and-up.

BR: If you could share one thing with Bruin fans, what would you say to them coming into the season?

JM: I think just the joy and the connection that our team has is something that’s going to be infectious out on the floor, and so I’m excited for the fans to get to see this team. They’re really special. I’m excited about what they’re going to do this year.

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Aaron Doyle
Isabelle Friedman | Editor in chief
Friedman is the 2023-2024 editor in chief. She was previously the Copy chief and a slot editor and has also contributed to Sports on the women's golf, women's soccer and gymnastics beats. Friedman is a fourth-year public affairs student.
Friedman is the 2023-2024 editor in chief. She was previously the Copy chief and a slot editor and has also contributed to Sports on the women's golf, women's soccer and gymnastics beats. Friedman is a fourth-year public affairs student.
Benjamin Royer | Assistant Sports editor
Royer is 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 previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
Royer is 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 previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
Genevieve Trimbell | Sports contributor
Trimbell is currently a contributor on the gymnastics and rowing beats.
Trimbell is currently a contributor on the gymnastics and rowing beats.
Samantha Garcia | Sports contributor
Garcia is currently a contributor on the gymnastics and softball beats.
Garcia is currently a contributor on the gymnastics and softball beats.
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