2001 UCLA Gymnastics Outlook
Dec. 18, 2000
A year ago, UCLA won its second national title in four years with a flawless two-day performance at the NCAA Championships. That team was lauded as perhaps one of the best teams in the history of the sport. This year, history may be looking over its shoulder at the 2001 Bruins.
Not only does UCLA return nine athletes from the 2000 championship team, but it gains a powerhouse freshman class of nine that could be the most talented class in NCAA history.
Leading the Bruins this season will be one of the most talented and honored gymnasts in the country, senior team captain Mohini Bhardwaj. The eight-time All-American is the defending NCAA uneven bars champion and all-around and beam runner-up. Last season, Bhardwaj won 29 individual titles throughout the season and averaged 39.431 in the all-around, including three scores of 39.7 or higher. She won Pac-10 titles in the all-around, vault and floor and regional titles in the all-around, bars and beam. She also became the first gymnast in Pac-10 history to earn all-conference honors in the all-around and all four events. Bhardwaj enters her final season with confidence and determination, not to mention upgraded skills to her already difficult routines.
'Mohini has always had a very competitive drive within, and it's coming out more this pre-season than it has any other year,' said UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field. 'She is on a mission to be the best athlete she can be, and to not only successfully defend the team's national championship, but to also win the individual all-around title that eluded her by the smallest of margins last year. She is literally in the best shape of her entire gymnastics career.'Aiding Bhardwaj in a leadership capacity are UCLA's juniors, who through their experience are the quiet leaders of the team. They know what it takes to succeed both on and off the competition floor as champions in the gym and champions in the classroom (UCLA achieved a team GPA of 3.29 in 1999-2000), and their teammates will learn from their example. Two-time Academic All-Americans Lindsey Dong and second-year co-captain Stephanie Johnson will provide depth to the Bruin lineup on vault, beam and floor. Valerie Velasco brings depth and stability in the all-around and has proven that she can step into any event at any given time, compete well and post competitive scores.
The sophomore class, also known as the 'Fab Five', is the heart and soul of this Bruin squad. As freshmen last year, they consisted of over half of the Bruin lineup in the post-season and led UCLA to a sweep of the conference, regional and national meets. All five athletes are expected to be key contributors again this season.
The leaders of the sophomore class are team co-captains Onnie Willis and Carly Raab. Last season, Willis quickly made a name for herself with her dynamic and expressive gymnastics. She set school freshman records in the all-around (39.525), vault (10.0), bars (9.975) and floor (9.95) and earned first-team All-America honors on vault and second-team honors on bars and floor. Says Kondos Field, 'It has been a pleasure watching Onnie mature into a confident and relaxed team member. She has found her niche on the team and fills it with dignity and pride.'
Although Raab did not compete last year due to a torn ACL, she was a major part of the team's accomplishments, providing spirit, exuberance, support and inspiration. The Academic All-American has made a full recovery from her injury and will compete on bars and beam this year.
Rounding out the super sophomores are all-around standouts Malia Jones, Kristin Parker and Doni Thompson. Jones competed all-around for the Bruins eight times a year ago, with a career-best of 39.425. She averaged 9.83 on floor and 9.786 on vault in the leadoff position. She returns in 2001 with the beauty and grace she displayed during her freshman campaign. 'Malia is the type of gymnast that every coach would dream of having,' claims Kondos Field. 'She has solid, clean routines which she performs exceptionally well.'
Parker earned second-team All-America honors in the all-around and averaged 39.091 during the 2000 season. The Academic All-American is known for her strength and explosiveness, as well as for her standout bars routine, on which she earned second-team All-America honors.
Thompson, the 2000 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, will be adding vault to her repertoire, making her another all-arounder UCLA can count on this season. Last year, despite a nearly five-year competition layoff, she was UCLA's most consistent athlete and hit an amazing 94% of her routines. She enters 2001 having learned new skills on all four events.
Following in the footsteps of last year's 'Fab Five Freshmen' will be tough, but the 2001 freshmen have not only the talent to live up to their predecessors' legacy, but they have the spunk and drive to take it to another level.
One edge the 2001 freshmen have is international experience. Four Bruin freshmen were 2000 Olympians - Kristen Maloney, Jamie Dantzscher and Alyssa Beckerman for the U.S. and Yvonne Tousek for Canada. Another, Jeanette Antolin, competed at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. All five have been members of World Championship teams. Experience in these high-pressure events cannot be taught, and UCLA will no doubt benefit from that.
Maloney will bring to the Bruins her high-level skills and consistency. She won consecutive U.S. all-around championships in 1998 and 1999 and became the nation's vault and floor champion in 2000. She has competed for the U.S. at nearly every major international meet in the past three years, including the 2000 Olympics, the 1999 and 1997 World Championships and the 1998 Goodwill Games.
Dantzscher is coming off the best year of her competition career, having placed third at the 2000 U.S. Championships and earning a spot on the Olympic team. Dantzscher, the 1999 U.S. bars champion, is a dynamic performer who combines power with grace. Like Maloney, she too has tons of international experience, competing at the 2000 Olympics, 1999 World Championships and 1999 Pan American Games. Dantzscher honed her performance skills on a national gymnastics tour during the Fall Quarter after the Olympics and is joining her team for the first time during the Winter Quarter.
Beckerman was a teammate of Dantzscher at the Pan Am Games and an alternate at the Olympic Games. She also earned a spot on the 1999 U.S. World Championship team but was unable to compete due to injury. The reigning U.S. balance beam champion has an unparalleled elegance and grace to her gymnastics, which will make her a perfect fit at UCLA.
Tousek comes in as the most experienced of the freshmen, having competed in two Olympic Games, four World Championships and two Pan American Games for Canada. Tousek was dominant at the 2000 Canadian national championships, winning the all-around, bars and floor and placing second on vault and beam. Look for her innovative routines on beam and floor and for her grace on the uneven bars.
Antolin has also been well known on the international scene for years, having been a part of two World Championship teams for the U.S. and competing in the 1999 Pan Am Games and 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. The four-year U.S. National Team member is a powerful athlete who will be a key contributor on all four events.
Williams is a two-time Level 10 national qualifier who won Arizona state championships on beam in 1999 and floor in 1998. At Level 9, she won the all-around, vault, bars and floor at the 1996 Regionals. Academically, she is a great fit with the program, having earned straight A's all throughout high school and being honored as her school's valedictorian.
Erickson is extremely familiar to the Bruin program, as her older sister Susie competed for UCLA from 1996-1999. Christy was a 2000 Level 10 regional qualifier and the 1999 Level 9 regional beam champion. Look for her to provide great depth on floor and beam.
Patel and D'Agostino will likely sit out the 2001 season but will remain a big part of the team off the competition floor. Patel, a five-time USAG state vault champion, is recovering from a torn ACL suffered at the 2000 Level 10 regional championships. D'Agostino comes to UCLA from a non-competitive gym and will use the 2001 season as a learning experience. She has already impressed her teammates and coaches with her work ethic and spirit.
'This is the most impressive class in the history of the sport,' proclaimed Kondos Field. 'Together the freshmen bring the total package - international experience, big skills, big names, strong academics and an enthusiasm for competing as UCLA Bruins.'
Collegiate gymnastics may have never seen the type of depth this year's Bruins have. Last season, UCLA won the championship with a seven-athlete lineup. This season, Kondos Field will have her pick from a team 18 strong that includes three All-Americans, four Olympians and seven World Championships competitors. In fact, this Bruin team is so deep that it will compete as a split squad in the season opener at the Maui Invitational Jan. 5.
UCLA's depth will help in resting athletes. With a fierce schedule that consists of 12 regular season meets plus the post-season championships, keeping everyone healthy and rested is key. Also, the Bruin Olympians come into the season having just completed their competition season in late September. 'The unknown this year will definitely be injuries,' said Kondos Field. 'Four of our freshmen have had no down time between the Olympics and school, but I hope to give them a balance of rest and practice to make sure they're prepared for the season.'
Expect competition within the gym to fester onto the competition floor during the season. Said Kondos Field, 'Everyone will be pushing each other hard and fueling those competitive fires throughout the year. That will no doubt help them in their preparation for meets and especially the championships.'