As the chalky dust started to settle before the final routine of the 2018 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships, defending champion Oklahoma, led by Maggie Nichols, had just finished a great uneven bars rotation, was sitting atop the standings and was in position to bring home its third-straight NCAA title.
However, over on beam, UCLA’s Peng-Peng Lee was ready to get her routine underway as the last gymnast capable of altering the team podium. Already under the added pressure of needing a hit routine to overcome the 9.275 a teammate scored with a fall, Lee would also need a near-perfect 9.975 to overtake the Sooners. She had been perfect on beam earlier in her career, but no routine would be more important than this, the final routine of Lee’s gymnastics career.
Heading into national championship weekend, UCLA was ranked third in the nation behind No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 LSU. While the Bruins were undoubtedly title contenders, the Sooners, Tigers and fifth-ranked Florida Gators had a majority of the public’s vote when predicting who would lift the trophy.
But one big reason the Bruins could never be counted out was their impressive roster, arguably one of the best in NCAA history. UCLA boasted two Olympic gold medalists in Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian — the first Olympic champions to ever compete in collegiate competition — along with future viral video stars Nia Dennis and Katelyn Ohashi and fan-favorite Peng-Peng Lee. Lee was a frontrunner to compete for Canada in the 2012 Olympic Games before injury ended her elite gymnastics career.
“We knew we had a chance at the championship,” Lee said. “I think as a team, as a whole, we had that championship mindset since the beginning of season. We were all super connected in the way that we really just wanted to enjoy each other’s company and do it for each other.”
UCLA was also led by Valorie Kondos-Field, more commonly known as “Miss Val.” The then six-time NCAA championship-winning head coach had tasted titles before and knew exactly what was needed to do it again, especially with such a talented roster.
After the Bruins cruised through their semifinal round to comfortably secure a spot on the final day of competition, they opened up their championship day with average floor and vault rotations and found themselves far off the lead at the midway point of the meet.
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“On the first two events we were kind of out of rhythm, we were getting distracted, watching the other girls on other teams, and halfway through the event on our bye [rotation], we really brought it together as a team,” Lee said. “What champions do is we don’t give up on the competition because we’re not going to win necessarily. It was having that championship mindset to do it for each other and end on a high note.”
The Bruins bounced back big on uneven bars, with Lee first achieving perfection in her last career bars routine to help UCLA score a tenth higher on the event than any of its five competitors and swing some momentum in its favor. Heading into the final rotation, the Bruins were back within striking distance of the Sooners.
When Lee saluted and took her final calming breath before mounting the balance beam, she had no idea that UCLA was still in contention for the title. Having gotten “in her head'' about this being her final routine, she opted to forgo watching her teammates and “vocalize” her nerves with Miss Val.
Lee was on a mission to perform her efficient yet difficult routine to the best of her ability by keeping her mind “simple” and clear.
Lee mounted with her fan-favorite flairs.
Balanced beautifully in her back handspring back pike acrobatic series.
Swiftly spun through her double turn to split jump combination.
And, most importantly, stuck the landing of her side aerial to full-twisting back layout dismount.
An emphasis during training for UCLA was that a routine wouldn’t score a perfect 10 unless it felt like a perfect 10.
“It felt like a perfect 10 routine,” Lee said of her career-ending beam routine that earned the acclaimed score and clinched the NCAA championship for the Bruins’ seventh time in program history.
An agonizingly long wait ensued from when Lee glued her feet to the mat on the dismount to when her 10.0 flashed on the scoreboard, but the Bruins’ celebrated her perfect score accordingly, despite not knowing it also clinched them a championship.
“In that moment, we were all just so happy the Bruins got another 10. It had nothing to do with the championship, which is really funny,” Lee said. Upon double and triple-checking the scores, the UCLA coaching staff made sure to let their athletes know they were now national champions.
Still amazed at how she ended her career with a pair of perfect scores and a team title, Lee said it didn’t sink in at all until she saw the championship trophy.
“I was so happy that I ended my career that way, that I did it for my teammates and that I was able to share that moment with my teammates,” Lee said. “It was incredible to be a part of the Bruin bubble and family in that moment.”
2018 NCAA CHAMPIONS!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/gLEkQ6tP8o— UCLA Gymnastics (@uclagymnastics) April 22, 2018