December 7, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

UCLA gymnastics team enjoys a ‘special’ home finale victory

Little about Kendal Poston’s senior year looked like she dreamed. Pauley Pavilion was empty. Her teammates wore masks. On Saturday, after her final home competition, Poston gave her coaches fist bumps instead of hugs when they handed her flowers and she spoke to her family through a camera on a TV screen.

Still, the Foothill Ranch native who had wanted to be on the UCLA gymnastics team since she was 6 years old couldn’t stop smiling under her mask.

“The love I feel here is something I know I’ll never experience again,” Poston said. “It’s just something so unique and so special.”

UCLA honored its seniors — Poston, Nia Dennis, Savannah Kooyman, Nicole Shapiro, Pauline Tratz and Lilia Waller — by tying its season high in a 197.1-193.575 win over San Jose State. The group was celebrated as leaders who added to the Bruins’ legacy despite a pandemic that made living up to the program’s high standards “20 times harder than any normal year,” as Poston said.

“The goal of this program is to produce leaders that are going to go out into this world and just make change, and I think this year offered the perfect example to do that,” said Poston, who scored a season-high 9.8 on vault. “This senior class has done everything in their power, despite all obstacles, to make sure that the discipline of UCLA gymnastics is just married to the joy.”

The Bruins maintained their joyous celebrations despite the constant reminders of how the pandemic dulled the team’s shine. No one can hug because of social distancing rules. After quarantines interrupted offseason training, UCLA’s scores are modest. The season-high score achieved Saturday would have ranked eighth out of the team’s 10 meets last season.

UCLA senior Kendal Poston performs her routine on the balance beam against San Jose State. “The love I feel here is something I know I’ll never experience again,” Poston said.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

But with the No. 1-ranked recruiting class entering next year, this season will likely be just a temporary competitive lapse. The Bruins are confident the program will rise again on the foundation set by the seniors.

“They simply decided that they wanted to have no regrets at the end of last year,” coach Chris Waller said. “In terms of resilience, they set an example of what that looks like.”

Entering the final rotation Saturday, UCLA was determined to perform on floor for its seniors. The Bruins delivered a season-high 49.5 in the event, led by 9.925s from Tratz, Dennis and freshman Chae Campbell to finish the rotation.

The final flurry seemed to be the perfect ending for a team that revolutionized college gymnastics floor routines. Dennis, who was struggled with injuries this year, rebounded from falls on bars and beam to deliver her best floor score in more than a month.

Teammates dance along with senior Nia Dennis, front, during her floor exercise against San Jose State on March 12, 2021.

Bruins teammates dance along with UCLA senior Nia Dennis, front, during her floor routine against San Jose State. The Bruins delivered a season-high score of 49.5 in the event.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins entered Saturday’s meet after a disappointing loss to California in which they regressed from two weeks of steady performances and failed to eclipse the 197-point mark. Tratz said this past week that the result made her discouraged and almost angry.

To correct their path, the Bruins focused on what it meant to celebrate, even during a pandemic, and how that could be the key to extending the program’s legacy.

“Bruins do — celebrate, celebrate together, hugging each other — that’s all hard during a pandemic,” Tratz said. “But I feel like we managed a way to do it as good as we can. I’m happy to leave this legacy as good as I can.”

After speaking to reporters via videoconference, Tratz went back into Pauley Pavilion and lied flat on her back at the center of the floor. She said wanted to “feel the Pauley magic” one last time.

Looking up, she saw the banners commemorating the university’s 118 national championships hung above her. She was a freshman on the team that won the title in 2018.