April 22, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

UCLA gymnastics shows solidarity in Black excellence meet

One after another, UCLA gymnasts repeated the same silent message. When the music stopped after their floor routines, each Bruin raised a fist in the air, holding final poses intentionally modified to make the perfect punctuation to UCLA’s first Black excellence meet.

What started as an off-hand suggestion from choreographer BJ Das turned into one of the most poignant details of UCLA’s first meet dedicated to racial justice as the 13th-ranked Bruins won 197.025-196.5 over Oregon State on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. Not only did all four of UCLA’s Black gymnasts — Sekai Wright, Margzetta Frazier, Chae Campbell and Nia Dennis — compete in the floor rotation and flash the symbol of racial equality at the end of their routines, but so did two of their white teammates, Emma Andres and Pauline Tratz.

The extra effort from the entire team “shook me to my core in a way that was so emotionally beautiful,” Frazier said.

“Something as bold as a power fist, which is very historical to Black people, something that can be seen as evil by some ignorant people, for them to do that really meant the world to me,” said the junior who tied her all-around career high with a 39.55.

UCLA was planning the meet for months after the team had candid conversations about last summer’s protests about racial inequality and police brutality. In addition to special leotards that featured a picture of a raised fist on the right shoulder and the modified floor routines, the Bruins (5-1, 4-1 Pac-12) peppered the event with tributes to Black culture like a pre-meet rendition of the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Black lives matter” T-shirts that the team wore during warmups and during the awards ceremony.

As the meet drew nearer and UCLA released statements on social media about it, fans started praising the team for its message on social justice, but there were also others who directed “a lot of terrible, racists things” at the team, coach Chris Waller said. The team tried to ignore it, but Waller knew it wouldn’t just go away.

“That’s why I’m proud of everybody on the team because we started the meet today and you could feel that everybody had a shared sense of purpose,” Waller said. “But you could also sense that there was a lot going on.”

Highlights from UCLA’s meet with Oregon State on Saturday.

The Bruins responded by scoring season highs on their first two rotations with a 49.2 on vault and 49.55 on bars. Dennis scored season highs on both events: a 9.925 on vault and a 9.95 on bars that also tied her career high.

The senior’s viral floor routine is a tribute to Black culture this year, but seeing the combined support from her teammates through the meet Saturday lifted the former U.S. national team member to greater heights.

“I honestly felt limitless,” Dennis said. “I felt empowered and I felt supported and loved.”

Dennis and Frazier had matching bars scores that, along with freshman Sara Ulias’ career-high 9.925, helped UCLA shatter its previous season-high score on the event. UCLA’s bars score Saturday was the team’s best score on any event this season.

UCLA gymnasts (from left) Chae Campbell, Nia Dennis and Pauline Tratz kneel in solidarity ahead of a meet against the Oregon State on Saturday.

(Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

Frazier, a two-time All-American on bars, anchored the rotation and stuck her double-layout dismount. She calmly saluted the judges after the routine and then dropped one arm. Her right fist stayed in the air.

“I’m hoping [people] can see past our gymnastics and really see the message that we’re spreading,” Frazier said. “Because the reason why I’m really proud of this team is we’re more than just a gymnastics team.”