Defending a national championship is never easy, but heading into the 2011 season, it sure seemed UCLA had all the ingredients to make that happen.
The Bruins had all but four routines returning from last year’s NCAA championship squad, not to mention a star-studded freshmen class featuring an Olympic medalist and a U.S. National Team member. But then the injury bug hit the Bruins, and they lost 2010 NCAA vault champion and 2010 Pac-10 Gymnast of the Year Vanessa Zamarripa to a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in the preseason. Days later, freshman Samantha Peszek, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist, went down with a foot fracture.
The first few weeks of the season were tough for the Bruins as they fell to Utah, Stanford and Southern Utah in dual meets in January, in addition to a second-place finish at the Pac-10 Showcase. It was a time of testing out new lineups while resting injured gymnasts, and figuring out what worked for the team.
“They have done a really good job of identifying our strengths and where we could get better,” head coach Valorie Kondos Field said. “We never once looked back and said, ‘if only we had Vanessa Zamarripa, if only we had Samatha Peszek.’ We never looked at what we didn’t have, but what we did have and where we could get better. We talked to them about getting one percent better every day and they all bought into that.”
The Bruins notched their first victory at Oregon State on Jan. 28, and the season began to turn around from that point. UCLA scored above a 196.3 in all but one of the remainder of its meets, and has broken the 197-mark in three of those competitions, including a 197.425 to win the NCAA Athens Regional on April 2. Looking back, Kondos Field believes the injuries forced other gymnasts to make the most of their chance to compete for a spot in the starting lineup.
“From a team chemistry perspective, it almost worked out better that (Peszek) missed the beginning of the season, because it gave other people opportunities to get in there and compete a lot,” Kondos Field said. “It gave our depth the opportunity to compete. Having the injuries we had exposed our weaknesses so that we were able to work on them more.”
Peszek made her collegiate debut on Feb. 11 at the IGI/Chicago Style meet, scoring 9.9 on bars to tie for first place. She is currently competing on bars, vault and beam for the Bruins, and has been a solid competitor, posting 9.8-plus scores in 13 of 15 routines, including three victories on the bars.
Despite her accomplishments as an elite gymnast, it took Peszek a while to adjust to collegiate competition, and while her injury set her back, it also gave her a chance to observe her new environment.“Sam has been a real surprise pleasure for us, because she definitely has the pedigree to come in here and be the ‘it girl’, and she is 100 percent team,” Kondos Field said. “We’ve been able to get all of her competitive experience and all of her training experience, everything that she has learned having such an amazing career before she got here – we got all that experience without the diva.”
“I had this image that college would be a lot easier,” Peszek said. “It’s not necessarily easier, it’s just different and to figure it out was kind of hard for me. The first couple of meets it was good to see what the protocol was and how everyone competes, but my favorite part about gymnastics is competing so it was really hard to sit back and watch everyone else.”
The Bruins appear to be peaking at the right time and the team is raring to go compete for a second consecutive NCAA title. UCLA has a solid lineup featuring 2011 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Olivia Courtney, who won the league’s bars and vault championships and the all-around at the Athens Regional; All-American junior Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, who shared the Pac-10 floor title and claimed the beam crown at regionals; junior Tauny Fratone, the regional vault champion; and junior Aisha Gerber, who tied Courtney for the Pac-10 bars championship.
“It’s not even about beating the other teams, it’s about doing what we know how to do best,” Peszek said. “There are so many key players on our team that anyone can go up on any event and get a great score for us. That’s really reassuring to see everyone working well together and sticking landings and doing lights out gymnastics. I’m not even nervous – I’m just excited.”
“I’m most impressed with this team that they never got down,” Kondos Field said. “We had a lot of lows — more lows than we did highs – but we never got down.”
Second-seeded UCLA will vie for its seventh NCAA title on April 15-17 at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The Bruins have won six NCAA gymnastics titles – in 1997 at Florida, 2000 at Boise State, 2001 at Georgia, 2003 at Nebraska, 2004 at UCLA and 2010 at Florida. UCLA has won either a team or individual NCAA title in 12 of the last 14 years.