‘On a whim’ to Westwood: Maddie Anyimi’s unexpected journey to UCLA gymnastics

(Photo by Brandon Morquecho/Photo editor. Photo illustration by Julia Chen/Daily Bruin)

By Samantha Garcia

February 23, 2024 at 9:06 p.m.

Walking around UCLA’s campus, building after building is named after Hall of Fame athletes and coaches.

From Drake Stadium and Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center to the John Wooden Center and Jackie Robinson Stadium, there is a long list of Bruin greats who have made their mark in Westwood.

But behind those big names are the athletes who work just as hard outside of the spotlight.

In Maddie Anyimi’s case, that’s how she first stepped foot on campus.

The UCLA gymnastics sophomore and Sacramento local competed as a Level 10 gymnast all through high school and, despite lacking an elite gymnastics background, caught the eye of coach Janelle McDonald.

McDonald, who had coached California as an assistant in nearby Berkeley, reached out to Maddie about joining the team, but she had hesitations about accepting the offer.

“I was not totally sold on it,” she said. “I was so burnt out. I was so tired. I was so done.”

Maddie set her sights on academically prestigious universities such as Stanford and Brown, before ultimately committing to UCLA regardless of what collegiate gymnastics had to offer.

Even through her senior year of high school, Maddie said she was still planning to ditch gymnastics as she pursued academics.

But when her mom told her that she would stop paying for her gymnastics training if collegiate gymnastics was no longer on the table, Maddie had a change of heart.

The set deadline evoked sentimental feelings about gymnastics, Maddie said, realizing she did not want to give up on her childhood dream.

Anyimi twists in the air as she competes her Yurchenko full at Pauley Pavilion. (Myka Fromm/Photo editor)
Anyimi twists in the air as she competes her Yurchenko full at Pauley Pavilion. (Myka Fromm/Photo editor)

So, Maddie returned to the floor, bars, beam and vault. And her results improved.

“Once she took the pressure off of herself or just stopped the pressure from maybe her coaches or even us, … we noticed – her dad and I – that she was more free,” said Nena Anyimi, Maddie’s mom. “She did well, and she had a great last (level 10) season.”

Before she arrived in Westwood as a freshman student, Maddie reached out to the coaching staff for one last go at a college gymnastics career and to see if they were still interested in having her on the team.

Maddie met some of the team and coaches at her New Student Orientation a month later, but had yet to meet McDonald in person after communicating often over the phone.

For Maddie, everything changed when the phone rang in the middle of practice.

“I still remember – I was in practice when she called me, but I missed the call, so then I ran out to my car to go take it and call her back,” Maddie said. “That was when she offered me a spot to come on the team. I was like, ‘Yes, yes, I want it.’”

The combination of being a last-minute addition to the team and spending her senior year thinking she would not compete at the collegiate level led to Maddie having imposter syndrome when she first started training with the team.

“I came in very much on a whim, so then when I actually got here and started working, I felt super behind,” Maddie said. “Obviously, I was good enough to be on the team in the first place, … but I had a lot of work to do, and a lot of work has been done since that time.”

Maddie said although she is more of a shy and introverted person, and even though she didn’t know the team very well, her teammates and coaches were all very open to her – a contrast to the individuality of her Level 10 gymnastics experiences.

Now in her second season as a Bruin, the sophomore has appeared in a handful of vault lineups throughout the past two seasons, notching a 9.800 in her 2024 debut at Oregon State, just 0.025 below her career high.

With junior Emma Malabuyo, away from the team and pursuing her Olympic run with the Philippines, there are open spots up for grabs in the lineups.

Maddie claimed one of those open spots Monday against Utah, scoring a 9.725 in her season debut on bars, just 0.025 below her career high.

Sophomore Maddie Anyimi soars in the air toward the high bar on bars at Pauley Pavilion. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
Anyimi soars in the air toward the high bar on bars at Pauley Pavilion. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

“I thought she went really aggressive. She really worked on hitting that first cast and just being present throughout the routine, ” McDonald said. “I think that was a big moment for her to build confidence and really be able to come out next time and dial in those details to really be somebody that can be consistent for us if she’s needed.”

Nena said “proud” is the best way to describe how she feels about her daughter’s achievements as a Bruin.

Considering that Maddie did not come from an elite background like many of her teammates, her mother still finds it difficult to believe that this is their reality.

“Even her freshman year was like a fairytale, like, ‘Is this real life?’” Nena said. “She’s on UCLA gymnastics. She’s actually in the lineup, like what, am I dreaming? Can someone pinch me?”

Read more stories like this: