LOS ANGELES –– It's 7:45 in the morning. The party is already raging in Yates Gym in the John Wooden Center.
The energy that pulses through Pauley Pavilion when the UCLA gymnastics team takes the floor for competitions also pushes the team through early morning training sessions. It's the same thing carrying a squad bursting with seasoned international competitors toward an NCAA championship opportunity this weekend.
"You've got these athletes that know how to compete under pressure," head coach Valorie Kondos Field said. "When you add that it's coming from a place of joy, that's when the magic happens."
UCLA hopes its trademark blend of unbridled joy and intense competitiveness leads to a magical finale this weekend in St. Louis, where the Bruins are vying for their first NCAA title since 2010. The third-ranked Bruins will compete in the first of two semifinal groups Friday, with the top three teams from each semifinal advancing to Saturday's Super Six at 7 p.m. E.T.
Capturing the joy behind gymnastics has always been a focal point for Kondos Field, now in her 28th season at the helm. Her athletes often come to college after years of intense training in elite gymnastics that's both physically and emotionally crushing. In Westwood, they rediscover their love for the sport.
"It's almost like freeing your soul because you've been trapped for so long," said sixth-year senior Christine Peng-Peng Lee, who would have competed for Canada in the 2012 Olympics if not for a knee injury. "It's letting your gymnastics take over and allowing others to have fun with you."
No team has more fun on any one event than the Bruins have on floor, where they're ranked first in the country. Kondos Field, a former ballet dancer, has made UCLA's floor rotation a must-watch event. Junior Katelyn Ohashi's Pac-12 Championship-winning routine set to a Michael Jackson medley has drawn more than 60 million views on Facebook, the latest in a long line of viral UCLA sensations.
Ohashi has won seven individual floor titles this season, scoring three perfect 10s while averaging a 9.925, which is tied for the national lead.
"A lot of us have experienced what the sport is like when you're super serious and not enjoying the sport whatsoever, and I know something for me that's so important is having fun," the junior said. "It's something that I always have in my mind that this is for me."
The former U.S. National Team member is one of several key sophomores and juniors who has contributed to more than 60 percent of UCLA's competitive routines. Kondos Field praises the group for its growth during the past year. Its maturity is now on par with its immense talent, which gives the Bruins a realistic shot at the NCAA title.
"The actions you're taking are helping the team move one step forward or one step back, there's no staying the same," said sophomore Kyla Ross, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist who won individual NCAA titles in beam and bars last year. "I think that's something we've all carried this whole year: being intentional with every action we do throughout our lives."
UCLA has lost only twice this season, falling by one-tenth to top-ranked Oklahoma and by 0.125 points to Utah, both at home. After losing to the Utes on Feb. 18, Kondos Field gathered her team and said it had yet to put together a full four-event meet. That would be the goal.
"And we're going to win out," the coach added defiantly.
The Bruins have not lost since.
During quiet moments, Lee, who is preparing to compete for the final time at UCLA, imagines what it would be like to win again this weekend.
"I think it's just going to be a ball of happiness," Lee said of the possible post-meet scene, "and a big dance party."
These Bruins wouldn't know any other way to celebrate.
This article is written by Thuc Nhi Nguyen from Los Angeles Daily News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.