DULUTH, Ga. — It was fast and furious and stuffed with shouting and yelling and, in the scheme of things, counted for absolutely nothing — except to UCLA’s Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs.
Her team was behind and needed her or it was over. It needed answers only she could provide, and she delivered.
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“I dominated the Harry Potter section,” Hopfner-Hibbs said. “We won. Whether it was a sign about what was going to happen, I’d like to think it was.”
Trivia competition during byes has been a way to keep the Bruins loose during competitions and it clearly helped Hopfner-Hibbs. Twice Friday in the first session of the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships she picked her teammates up after huge mistakes — the second to save the season — to advance UCLA into Saturday’s Super Six.
Joining the Bruins in Saturday’s finals are Pac-12 schools Utah and Stanford.
The team has discovered that through things like trivia games, they relax more and subsequently perform better. If anyone needed to relax going into this championship it was Hopfner-Hibbs. She has been a solid performer her entire career, but making the finals in the floor and the beam — her best event — had been elusive. Hopfner-Hibbs was obsessed with never making a finals individually until this season.
“I’ve always wanted to help the team as much as I could,” Hopfner-Hibbs said. “But there was always that part of me that wanted to make finals, because I know I can do really well. But this year I said I would just focus on the team and I put the team ahead of my personal goals. I said if I make finals great, but I want to help my team make Super Six.
“I’d been putting too much pressure (on making finals) instead of what I was doing to help the team. It’s funny but when I put the team’s goals ahead of my own, it helped me do better routines which led me to finals.”
It was an answered prayer for sure.
“She is unquestionably one of the most beautiful gymnasts performance-wise in the world,” UCLA coach Valorie Kondos said. “It’s always been (unfortunate) that she’s not made beam or floor finals. This is her senior year and one of my prayers all year was, ‘Please let Elyse do what she does best and that would put her in the finals.’
“Not only did she do that, but we had two uncharacteristic falls, with two of our guns — Vanessa Zamarripa on beams and Sam Peszek on floor — and Elyse had to follow both of those athletes and was absolutely brilliant.”
Hopfner-Hibbs followed up Peszek on the floor with a 9.175 with a 9.900. After Zamarripa’s 9.274 on the beam, a score that looked to knock the Bruins out of the competition, Hopfner-Hibbs came through again with another 9.900.
Both efforts earned her the right to compete for the individual championships in the floor and beam. A nice accomplishment for Hopfner-Hibbs, but she wanted the team win more.
“Vanessa had just made a mistake on beam, so that always adds a little bit of extra pressure,” Hopfner-Hibbs said. “But I just thought (to herself), ‘Beam is your best event. Just go out there and focus on your cues and do one thing at a time.” I did that and had fun up there.
“Our team thrives in the goofy, fun environment. When we’re tight and tense and thinking about hitting our routines we tend to do not as well. The thing to do better gymnastics is to just loosen up and have more fun. So we do things like dance parties and trivia during the byes. It’s awesome. It’s more competitive than it is on the competition floor in that locker room. It does help us. Allows us that time to just break and relax a little bit but keep that competitive edge.”
There will be more games on Saturday for sure. It works and the Bruins are on the brink of a title. It doesn’t get much better than that.
“We’re so ready to go,” Hopfner-Hibbs said. “We’re glad to be in the first session and have the rest of the day to relax and recuperate. We’ll be up for the challenge.”