Recently I visited the John Wooden Center on UCLA’s campus, the home to the Bruin volleyball and women’s basketball teams this year while Pauley Pavilion is undergoing renovation, as I’ve done several times in the past few months.
However, it was not to watch a volleyball game, nor was it to watch the Bruin ladies go after it on the hardwood as the team I was going to see, compared to basketball and football, is a tad under the radar in the grand scheme of college sports, though it has grown immensely over the past decade.
Compared to the upcoming March Madness – which, incidentally, UCLA’s chances of participating in are highly unlikely in the case of both the men’s and women’s hoops teams – this sport doesn’t get as much mainstream attention compared to the women’s basketball Final Four, let alone the men’s.
Which is most unfortunate, because the athletes I saw on this particular day are some of the best one will ever see, young ladies who rarely stand above 5′ 5″ but can do things that Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III can only dream about.
For instance, ever tried to just stand on a four-inch wide piece of wood that’s four feet off the ground?
Ever tried to swing from one bar to another when they’re not the same height? Or do crazy tricks while jumping over a padded vault or running around a large mat?
These ladies I saw can run, jump, twist, spin, and dance on all of those things, and do them very well as the routines they can do are so mind-boggling and gravity-defying, it can easily debilitate the average football jock.
I’m talking about a sport that has been arguably the most successful program in Westwood this 21st century: the UCLA women’s gymnastics team, which is the only collegiate gymnastics program in Southern California.
Led by the dynamic Valorie Kondos Field, who’s currently in her 22nd year as head coach, these Bruin gymnasts have been nothing short of incredible in winning six NCAA championships, including four in a five-year span from 2000-2004, with their latest national title coming in 2010 – only Georgia, with ten titles, and Utah, with nine, have won more.
Many outstanding gymnasts have donned the blue leotard in Kondos Field’s tenure, including Olympians such as Tasha Schwikert, Jamie Dantzcher, and Kristen Maloney.
And unlike many other jocks from other schools, the ladies on this team are real student-athletes as these Bruins are usually either the first or second ranked team on campus as far as GPA, which in the era of football players getting arrested and their teams being put on probation, as well as basketball players bailing for the NBA after one season, showing they they don’t give a care about education, is a refreshing relief.
Getting back to what I saw at the John Wooden Center, these young ladies, who are currently ranked third in the nation and are on a very short list of favorites for this year’s national championship, outdid themselves as they won their meet in a dominating fashion, outscoring Arizona State by a huge margin while achieving their highest score – 198.050 out of 200 – since 2004.
Which incidentally is the highest meet score of any gymnastics team this season.
To say that this team is loaded with all-Americans would be an understatement, but several Bruins shone at this meet, led by Vanessa Zamarripa, who won the all-around with a score of 39.625 out of 40, which included a 9.925 out of 10 on the balance beam and the floor exercise.
Three Bruins achieved a score of 9.95 or better, which is just short of a perfect ten: Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs scored a 9,95 on the floor, Monique DelaTorre did the same on the uneven bars, and Olivia Courtney matched Hopfner-Hibbs’ 9.95 on the floor and achieve the highest score of the meet, a 9.975 on the vault.
And that doesn’t include Samantha Peszek, the 2011 NCAA champion on the balance beam who won a team silver medal for the U.S. at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and has won four all-arounds for UCLA this year. She was only able to compete on beam during this particular meet due to injury, but she made the most of it with a score of 9.925.
And with U.S. National team member Mattie Larson rounding out the rotation, the future is bright as she is only a freshman.
These are just some of the brilliant young ladies that grace the mats in Westwood, as they are so good at what they do that I thoroughly enjoy going to see them.
Right now these Bruins have two very important meets remaining before the regionals, including a showdown which could be considered the gymnastics version of the USC – Notre Dame football rivalry: a meet at Athens, GA against the Georgia Bulldogs this Friday, followed by their regular season finale at the Wooden Center on Sunday, March 11 against a highly ranked Oklahoma team.
I highy recommend folks to come and support this great team, which has certainly upheld the Bruins tradition of excellence, and I definitely encourage everyone to check them out against Oklahoma, though it’s urged that tickets be bought early as the Wooden Center only seats a little over 2,000.
If you do attend, trust me, you’ll be glad that you went.