February 23, 2024

Emma Malabuyo can’t stop smiling. The UCLA gymnast just has a good feeling about this season.

“It feels like magic this year,” Malabuyo said.

The Bruins are hoping to build on their success after a miraculous one-year turnaround under Janelle McDonald. The first year under the first-time head coach was about building culture, stabilizing the program after its third head coach in five years and rediscovering the team’s joy.

The second year is about goals. And they’re lofty.

After ending the longest nationals drought in program history, these Bruins want 10s this year. They want to improve team scores every week. They want to challenge for a Pac-12 title — and not just the shared regular-season one they earned last year.

Most importantly, they want to get back to the national final for the first time since 2019.

“I think for sure, we’re going to be in the final four because we’re just so hungry from last year,” said sophomore Selena Harris, who was selected Pac-12 freshman of the year last season. “Last year, we thought we worked so hard [to be] in the last four, but since we didn’t make it, I feel like everyone’s doing more than enough to feel that security that we have what it takes to be up there too.”

UCLA, ranked fifth nationally in the preseason poll, opens the season Saturday in Las Vegas at the Super 16 at 6 p.m. in a quad meet against No. 7 California, No. 8 Alabama and No. 17 Auburn.

UCLA's Emily Lee competes on the balance beam during the NCAA Los Angeles Regional in March.

UCLA’s Emily Lee competes on the balance beam during the NCAA Los Angeles Regional in March.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins are going to be without two key contributors from last year’s team that finished with the third-highest NCAA semifinal score. Two-time NCAA individual champion Jordan Chiles is trying to earn a second consecutive Olympic berth. Junior Ana Padurariu, a two-time World Championships beam finalist for Canada, is also returning to elite gymnastics after being a stalwart on beam and bars for the Bruins.

With seniors Sara Ulias (knee) and Frida Esparza (shoulder) returning from injury, the bars lineup that ranked fourth nationally last year still has depth without Chiles and Padurariu. Freshman Katelyn Rosen, a former U.S. national team member, is already factoring into all-around for the Bruins and gives them a boost where they need it most: vault.

Vault was the only event the Bruins were ranked outside of the top 10 nationally last year, checking in at 11th, in part because of lower start value vaults. Of UCLA’s six vaulters in the national semifinal, only three competed routines that could earn a 10. With their 1½-twisting Yurchenko vaults, Rosen and Florida transfer Nya Reed, a two-time vault All-American, provide two more 10 start values that will immediately boost UCLA’s earning potential on the event by one-tenth. The small margin is significant: Oklahoma won the national championship over Florida last season by just one-and-a-half tenths.

Malabuyo pointed to the stockpiling of talent on the team’s formerly weakest event as one of the reasons why the Bruins are comfortable with their nationals aspirations.

Just talking openly about the ambitious goals shows the growth of the program. One year ago, entering her first season as a head coach, McDonald said “winning is not my ultimate goal right now.”

With a successful season together, McDonald said the Bruins were immediately able to focus on what they wanted to accomplish this year instead of waiting for the gymnastics to fall into place as the culture reformed.

“Because our culture is stronger, we’ve had a lot more trust that’s built,” McDonald said. “So we’re able to have really great conversations with our athletes, we’re able to push them through a tough day and they’re able to communicate what they need.”

UCLA coach Janelle McDonald celebrates during the NCAA Los Angeles Regional in March.

UCLA coach Janelle McDonald celebrates during the NCAA Los Angeles Regional in March.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Even if the team’s preseason feels magical, it hasn’t always been easy, McDonald said. The coaching staff assigned difficult training sets. Gymnasts are throwing new, upgraded skills like Harris’ double layout on floor, a skill she’s wanted to compete for years but never worked up the confidence to execute until UCLA’s Meet the Bruins exhibition. Coaches refined different routines to find the optimal score combinations for each gymnast.

The difficult training regimen was by design. With weekly competitions, McDonald said the most important qualities she wants the Bruins to develop are adaptability and grit to fight through the ups and downs of the season.

“Because we compete so much that at one point, you’re not going to get the same adrenaline rush the first few meets that we had,” Harris said. “Now it’s kind of like relying on the four months of training that we just did and worked so hard for. … When you get to the meet, you grind when you’re tired because we need you to be at your best.”

In a sport often looked at for its beauty and grace, the Bruins are proving to themselves that it’ll take more than magic to win the program’s eighth national championship.

It’ll take grit.

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