Tradition and dominance fuel UCLA women gymnastics

This is what excellence looks like. Seven national titles. Multiple Pac-12 championships. All-Americans come through the UCLA women’s gymnastics team like water flowing out of a stream. And to boot, the Bruins manage to maintain this aura of greatness by adding a dash of flair to their competitions.

For UCLA women gymnastics coach Chris Waller, it’s been a spectacular season to watch. It seems nearly every week when the Bruins perform senior Nia Dennis and junior Margzetta Frazier are breaking the Internet with their well-choreographed floor routines.

Dennis, with her ode to 2Pac, Kendrick Lamar, with some love for Beyonce and Frazier, incorporating Janet Jackson’s Nasty and Rhythm Nation into her floor show, has set the gymnastics and pop culture world abuzz.

That buzz has turned the women’s gymnastics team into national sensations. This is a group thing. The entire UCLA women’s gymnastics team gets revved up as they cheer on their teammates, whether someone is working it out on the beam, dashing to perfection on the vault, or become poetry in motion while perfecting a floor exercise. The infectious vibe of team camaraderie is contagious.

When you attend a UCLA gymnastics meet, you can see it. You can feel it. This is why UCLA has one of the more prestigious gymnastics programs in the country.

A Top 10 national ranking by the time they wrap their season after engaging San Jose State in a home meet, is not out of bounds for the Bruins, now the No. 14 team in the nation. Now the hype and pizzazz have met up with reality for UCLA.

UCLA freshman gymnast Frida Esparza performing on the balance beam during a meet earlier this year. Before competing for the Bruins, Esparza won the all-around title at the Mexican National Championships and performed at the 2018 and 2019 world championships. Photo credit: UCLA Athletics
UCLA freshman gymnast Frida Esparza performing on the balance beam during a meet earlier this year. Before competing for the Bruins, Esparza won the all-around title at the Mexican National Championships and performed at the 2018 and 2019 world championships. Photo credit: Rand Bleimeister/ UCLA Athletics

Close Pac-12 Conference defeats to No. 5 Utah and No. 6 Cal have pushed the Bruins out of a Top 10 spot in the national rankings. Despite those setbacks, Waller and the Bruins are in a good place overall. Losses withstanding, Waller’s team is laced with exceptional student-athletes.

Dennis, Frazier, Pauline Tratz, Norah Flatley, as well as Sekai Wright, all upperclassmen, have what it takes to guide the Bruins to possible Pac-12 and national titles this year. But this bunch may have to get some help from the newbies on the scene to be able to achieve those aspirations.

Although he had the No.1 signing class in the nation, according to College Gym News, Waller has just four freshmen listed on the current and most active roster: Chae Campbell, Frida Esparza, Sara Ulias, and Brooklyn Moors. Campbell, Esparza, and Ulias have been rocking the boat for the Bruins this season.

They really didn’t have a choice. The Bruins lost five All-Americans, so it has been vital for Waller and the Bruins that the called on frosh class step up. Once she broke through her own mental barrier earlier in the season, Ulias has been on fire recently. In the Bruins’ meet against Cal, Ulias nailed a score of 9.875 on the uneven bars, the third straight week she had been able to reach that benchmark or have gone higher.

A molecular, cell, and developmental biology major, Ulias didn’t always have that kind of confidence in her as she does now, Waller said.

“She’s a beautiful bar worker, artistically and athletically,” Waller said during a virtual press conference. “She has great skill, but she came in really timid. She came back from a back injury a couple of years ago, and her senior year of high school-athletically was cut short, of course. She really was struggling to get back to her stride and she had this glass ceiling for herself like what I think she thought she was capable of.”

UCLA freshman Sara Ulias performing on the uneven bars for the Bruins. Photo credit: Rand Bleimeister/UCLA Athletics

Waller said that the glass ceiling Ulias kept bumping her head up against was a mental block more than anything else.

“Bottom line is each time that she’d run up against a moment where things didn’t go well, it was kind of like…she was kind of like, ‘See, there you go. I don’t think I can do it.’ She’s been remarkably coachable and when she bumped up against that glass ceiling and just trying to help her through it, she was willing to open her eyes and her heart to the idea that she could be exceptional,” Waller said. “I mean, you come on to UCLA’s team with people who’ve been on the national team and traveled around the world internationally, she had a bit of an imposter syndrome being on the team but she does not have that anymore.”

Ulias’ confidence has been soaring of late. Her 9.925 score on the uneven bars in a Feb. 27 meet against Oregon State led her to selection as the weekly Coaches Choice award honoree. Before the Bruins took on Cal in a road meet on March 6, Ulias talked about her rising confidence on a Zoom media call.

“I’d say that my confidence is definitely growing,” Ulias said. “In every meet that we go to, whether I’m doing like an exhibition or in an official competitive routine, I feel like an extra boost of confidence. Just doing it with my team-that makes it a lot more special. And it’s being surrounded by a bunch of amazing athletes is really inspiring for me.”

In regards to her breakthrough mark against the Beavers, Ulias said she owes that performance to her teammates and coaches.

“I wouldn’t say I expected that kind of performance, but it’s really cool that my coaches and my team believes that I could do a performance like that,” Ulias said. “So, they really brought out a lot of confidence in me. These past couple of weeks I’ve been working really hard in the gym just to perfect the little details [and] kind of work on my mental game when it comes to doing routines under pressure. So I think doing that really helped and it paid off at the right time.”

Performing under pressure is nothing new for Esparza. In 2018 and 2019, Esparza competed at the world championships representing Mexico. Placing ninth in the overall, Esparza was instrumental in leading Mexico to a bronze medal at the 2018 Pan American Games. The achievements don’t stop there for Esparza. Besides her showing at the Pan American Games and world championships, she also won the All-Around title at the 2018 Mexican National Championships.

Performing on the big stage would seem like it would be no big deal. But things are a bit different at the collegiate level. That’s one of the things she’s has had to make adjustments to, Esparza said.

UCLA gymnast Chae Campbell has won three Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors. Photo credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline
UCLA gymnast Chae Campbell has won three Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors. Photo credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

“It’s been very different,” Esparza said. “It’s helped me like I realize I actually-it’s more of a team thing not so much of an individual. So, I know that I have people that have my back, and they’re there to support me, whether I do good or bad. So, it’s kind of like a safety net for me and it’s nice to know that I have a lot of people on my side.”

What’s also been different for Esparza is learning to bounce back from a mistake. Esparza, who won the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award after collecting scores of 9.9 on the uneven bars and 9.8 on the balance beam in a Jan. 23 meet against Arizona State, had to quickly adapt a moving mindset, Waller said.

“Being a champion is not about being perfect,” Waller said. “Being a champion is about how quickly you can recover from an error, whether that’s during a routine. Let’s say you miss a little handstand, you have a slight wobble on beam. So you have this slight half-tenth deduction. Champions have that and then they recover. Like in milliseconds instead in an hour or two days. Her ability to recover emotionally from a little error is getting quicker and quicker.”

The success of UCLA’s freshmen gymnasts has been heightened by the electric performances of Campbell, Waller’s first signed recruit as the Bruins head coach.

“I am extremely happy to have Chae join the team,” Waller said after officially landing the three-time Texas state vault champion. “Chae is an independent thinker and self-assured. She brings a fun and light demeanor but with a fierce competitiveness that you might not expect. She has great character and will prove to be a great teammate and friend to her new Bruin family.”

A two-time Junior Olympics National Team member, Campbell has shined brightly for the Bruins this season. In many ways, Campbell may have exceeded Waller’s expectations. Outside of the Bruins’ season closeout meet against San Jose State, Campbell has captured the vault four times.

Campbell has been so good in just about everything she does that she has won the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors three times, including putting together a riveting 39.625 all-around score against Cal. It’s the third time this season that Campbell has posted a meet’s best all-around mark.

Whether things are flowing the way she expects them to if there is a bad rotation day, being consistent is something Campbell said she tries to do by relying on the work she puts in.

“I think it’s really just how I train is important,” Campbell said. “It’s not about like getting in all the numbers, but just doing what I can do as consistently as possible…no matter what happens out there, just trusting in my training is key.”

Featured image caption: UCLA freshman Chae Campbell performing a floor routine during meet competition. Photo credit: UCLA Athletics