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The official photo of the 2015 UCLA Women’s Gymnastics Team

 

AN ODE TO A LOCAL TEAM THAT IS JUST AS FUN TO WATCH AS THE DODGERS, THE CLIPPERS, THE KINGS, OR ANY OTHER PRO TEAM IN SOCAL – IF NOT MORE

 

For the past twelve years, I have been watching a group of athletes that can do things that millionaires and household names like Chris Paul, Mike Trout, and Clayton Kershaw can’t even think about doing without making fools of themselves.

We’re talking about young ladies that can do somersaults and various other tricks that defy gravity on pieces of wood that are a mere four inches wide and four feet off the ground, two horizontal poles that aren’t even parallel to each other, and a little padded thing at the end of a runway which they have to sprint toward.

As Missy Peregrym said in the 2006 movie Stick It, “Don’t be fooled by the leotards, people!”

All while keeping in mind that one tiny mistake is often the difference in winning and losing, unlike in basketball where the best shooters make only half of their baskets, or baseball where you can fail to hit the ball successfully 70% of the time and still be considered a great hitter.

Add to that the unfortunate fact that compared to college football and men’s basketball , particularly the Final Four – even compared to women’s basketball for that matter – this is a sport generally considered to be under the radar, not getting the mainstream attention that it richly deserves.

I’m talking about the women’s gymnastics team at UCLA, which boasts the distinction of being the only collegiate program of its kind in Southern California and is arguably the most successful program in Westwood over the past twenty years with their six national championships, including four in a five-year span from 2000-2004.

I used to call them “L.A’s Best Kept Secret” due to the lack of mainstream coverage in the local papers or media outlets like ESPN, but as this team draws the largest attendance of any Bruin sport save for football and men’s hoops, averaging anywhere from four to six thousand fans in a town with so many recreational options, I can’t really say that anymore.

What particularly impresses me about this team is how unlike too many other jocks at too many other schools, these UCLA gymnasts are true student-athletes who take their academics seriously as they are usually ranked among the top three teams on campus as far as team grade point average.

 

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2012 “Fab Five” Olympic Gold Medalist and current UCLA undergraduate assistant coach Jordyn Wieber giving support to a Bruin gymnast 

 

In this era of Heisman Trophy winners stealing lobsters from supermarkets and being put before their student court for shouting obscenities on top of a table in the student union, and basketball players showing they don’t give a care about education by bailing for the NBA after one season, the fact that this Bruin team studies as hard as they train and compete is a most refreshing relief and serves as yet another source of pride.

Led by the dynamic Valorie Kondos Field, who is now in her 25th year as head coach, many big names have donned the blue leotard and have contributed to the program’s success, such as Olympians Tasha Schwikert, Jamie Dantzcher, and Kristen Maloney.

Not to mention a current Bruin who won team silver in the 2008 Bejing Olympics, Samantha Peszek, who as a fifth year senior is currently ranked #1 in the all-around.

And speaking of Olympians, these Bruins have an undergraduate assistant coach who happens to be one of the “Fab Five” who won team gold in the 2012 London Games, Jordyn Wieber, who also happens to be the 2011 women’s world all-around champion.

As for this year’s team, it has been a decent start so far for this talented bunch.

They have won three out of their first four meets, including a win over Pac-12 Conference opponent California on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday that saw Danusia Francis, a junior from Great Britain, get a career high-score of 9.925 on the uneven bars and Christine Peng Peng Lee, a Canadian native who hadn’t competed for two years due to injury, score a near-perfect 9.95 on the bars and the balance beam.

Currently ranked 11th in the country (tied with Auburn) this band of Westwood sisters’ next meet is at home in Pauley Pavilion against 17th ranked Washington this coming Monday night.

After a quad meet on February 21st and dates with Arizona State, #8 Arkansas, and two meets with #13 Stanford, these Bruin gymnasts will head to Tempe, AZ for the annual Pac-12 meet, followed by the NCAA regionals and nationals, which they are favored to not only do very well in, but also possibly win their 7th NCAA title (and the school’s nation-leading 113th) if they stay healthy.

In the meantime, I strongly urge you to attend one of the three remaining home meets; here’s the link if you want the details and information on tickets:

http://www.uclabruins.com

And as an additional enticement, check out some highlights of this great team from the 2013 season:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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