It’s hard not to stumble when more than 12,000 fans are waiting for you to fall.
Unable to stay steady on the balance beam, the No. 1 UCLA gymnastics team wobbled and wavered its way to a 195.7-195.3 season-opening loss against No. 5 Utah on Friday.
Despite two falls on beam in Salt Lake City, the Bruins showed flashes of potential worthy of their top ranking, including a career-high 9.825 on beam from sophomore Lichelle Wong.
“I think it was a good start to the season,” junior Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs said. “We didn’t win the meet, but we had some good moments. It’s really early, so the important thing is just working from there and improving.”
But with two additional falls on beam during the Pac-10 Showcase on Sunday, the apparatus looks to be the Bruins’ weakest link early in the season.
But for coach Valorie Kondos Field, the team’s struggles are all part of the learning process necessary for success in the postseason.
“First, we have to figure out who is competing because I have other athletes who may be able to do better and score higher,” she said.
“Then we need to figure out what our beam order should be because last year when we put (then-senior) Anna Li up front, it totally changed the chemistry.”
With the final lineup for beam largely undetermined, Kondos Field believes that her gymnasts may finally start to show a little intersquad competitiveness in the hopes of securing a spot in the rotation.
“Because everyone has been so nice to each other, there has been really no friction to work through so far,” she said. “That kind of sounds like a weird complaint but I think that as long as it is not destructive, friction works well with a team and now we have it.”
Although Kondos Field remains optimistic despite the Bruins’ inability to complete six routines on balance beam, there is one element of the problem that puzzles her.
“I’m wondering if there is a mentality of being national champions where they feel that they have to defend their title, because they are making silly mistakes,” said Kondos Field, who noted that the majority of the team’s major errors have been coming from her veterans.
“Look at Elyse’s fall on beam against Utah and (senior Niki Tom’s) today on the simplest skill in her routine. It is not like we haven’t trained consistently, so I don’t know what is going on, but we will figure it out.”
Freshmen make debuts
Among the four UCLA gymnasts to score 9.9 or higher during the Pac-10 Showcase was freshman Sydney Sawa with a 9.9 on uneven bars.
Sawa and fellow freshman Olivia Courtney made their first appearances as Bruins on Friday against Utah.
Kondos Field was pleased with both of their performances but expects them to continue developing throughout the season.
“I think they are great and just so much fun,” she said. “They are great competitors and team players, but they still need to clean up their skills.”
After facing the hostile environment of Utah, Sawa said the friendly fans at UCLA were a welcome sight, and described the feeling of walking into Pauley Pavilion as “kind of overwhelming but a rush of adrenaline at the same time.”