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Flipping the cap backward: Kyle Grable injects fun, swagger into UCLA gymnastics

UCLA gymnastics assistant coach Kyle Grable leans against a table in Pauley Pavilion with his backwards cap. Grable coaches floor and vault for the Bruins. (Courtesy of UCLA Athletics)

By Benjamin Royer

Jan. 28, 2024 12:16 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 30 at 7:32 p.m. 

Flip the baseball cap backward.

Ken Griffey Jr., a superstar on the baseball diamond who scorched his influence across each city he played in, landed in Cincinnati in 2000 – launching a nine-year stint with the Reds.

An hour’s drive away in Dayton, Ohio, Kyle Grable was a student in a state engrossed in the endless swagger of “The Kid.”

“Ken Griffey Jr. is my No. 1,” said Grable, the assistant coach for UCLA gymnastics. “My dog’s name is Griffey. I wanted to name my firstborn Griffey, but my wife Autumn (assistant coach Autumn Grable) said no.”

And while their paths never crossed beyond Kyle watching Griffey swat home runs at Great American Ball Park en route to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the hat flung inverse remains a constant.

Kyle jokes at practice that the cap protects his “grays,” with his hair color fading as he reaches his mid-30s. But the cap is a sign of Griffey – also an advocate for injecting fun into sports – more than Kyle even knows. Kyle’s teaching style has become one appreciated by his gymnasts and fellow coaches alike.

“Kyle is putting in everything he has,” said freshman Katelyn Rosen said. “He’s so passionate.”

Grable (right) watches on as freshman Katelyn Rosen (left) competes her floor routine at Pauley Pavilion. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

Griffey is more like UCLA gymnastics than he would know, too.

Whether with the Seattle Mariners or Cincinnati Reds, the organizations Griffey spent most of his career with, his trademark swing and style has impacted the game culturally – with a signature Nike shoe and as a video game cover athlete – as well as on the field with his five-tool talent.

The Bruins exert their personalities into routines, especially on floor, as they compete at Pauley Pavilion. Inching closer to 20 years of coaching gymnastics, Kyle – the team’s floor and vault coach – is still searching for that Griffey-esque individuality from his gymnasts.

“He had his own style,” Kyle said. “How they (student-athletes) hold themselves is very important, and just having fun and have some swagger. Hit that ball and own it – that’s kind of taking it from him, too.”

Never a gymnast himself, Kyle grew up playing baseball, soccer and wrestling and said he would make games out of anything alongside his cousins.

If he had a baseball, he’d make a game out of it.

If he had a board game, his family would sit around and play.

A self-described nerd, the Buckeye State local said he loves video games and anything that brings competition. Kyle even convinced Autumn to take part in Dungeons & Dragons-style games, something he said was fun but only lasted about a week.

Ahead of the Washington meet Saturday, Kyle set up games to help his team with vault training and landings. Dungeons & Dragons became a part of the regimen Wednesday night, with the Bruins fighting monsters and building worlds to dial in.

“I never thought I would ever play that game,” said senior Chae Campbell. “I’m not a gamer personally, but I’m glad that I get that experience. That’s just the best thing about Kyle is he’s always teaching me new things. I love Kyle.”

Only two years ago, Kyle was coaching at Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center in Indianapolis.

Not only was he the co-head coach for elite development alongside Autumn, but he also coached kids much younger than the current crop of UCLA gymnasts – with ages ranging between six and 12 years old.

Kyle said making things fun for younger kids helped him teach teenagers and ultimately coach college students.

“They’re all kids at heart when it comes down to it,” he said. “They get excited about that kind of stuff.”

His “kids” in Westwood have graduated from being the weak link to turning a corner that could dramatically shift the team’s potential.

Grable stands off to the side during Saturday’s meet at Pauley Pavilion. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Last year, the Bruins ranked No. 11 in the nation on vault. Statistically, it was their worst event in 2023 of the four apparatuses.

Now, UCLA ranks sixth overall on vault. And Saturday, the Bruins notched a 49.400 for the second time in 2024 – a mark UCLA failed to match nine times in Kyle’s first year as vault coach.

It’s no sophomore slump.

UCLA has the potential to showcase five 10.0 start values across its lineup, currently featuring four alongside Campbell’s perfect 9.95 against Washington on Saturday. In her first year as a Bruin, graduate student Nya Reed said the playful energy from her coach helped keep things light on vault.

“We need that competitive spirit,” Reed said. “It creates a positive and fun atmosphere, because I know for me, I don’t like vault – I’m terrified of vault. It’s a good atmosphere to be a part of. It gives you drive to be able to be great.”

What was once a weakness has become a vital strength for a team that lost Jordan Chiles and Ana Padurariu to Olympic training and will lose junior Emma Malabuyo midseason for Olympic qualifiers.

And while Griffey was known for mammoth blasts, when the year trickles down into March and April, Kyle wants his Bruins to be known for sticking their landings on vault.

“That exciting feeling when he hit a home run is that same feeling I get when somebody sticks a vault.”

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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.
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