UCLA gymnastics will take the floor of Pauley Pavilion on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Gymnastics Los Angeles Regional but behind the scenes, the gymnasts are already dancing.
Tuesday afternoon featured with a studio day hosted by floor exercise choreographer BJ Das, who taught the gymnasts a hip-hop routine set to “Yikes” by Nicki Minaj — the clean version of the song, sophomore Emma Malabuyo quickly said.
“I’ve been begging for BJ to teach this dance since I got here at UCLA,” Malabuyo said. “I’ve seen the girls do it, like on YouTube videos. She’s like, we already did it and I was like, please. I was so excited and it was the perfect way to end our last practice before regionals.”
UCLA will compete in the second session against Missouri, Stanford and the winner of Wednesday’s dual meet between BYU and Boise State in the Los Angeles Regional at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
The top two teams from the second session and Thursday’s afternoon session featuring Utah, Auburn, Southern Utah and Washington will proceed to Saturday’s regional finals.
The Bruins, the No. 4 national seed and No. 1 seed in the regional competition, are vying for one of two team berths in the NCAA Championships, set for April 13-15 in Forth Worth, Texas. If they make the cut, it’ll be their first appearance as a team in the NCAA championships since 2019 (there were no 2020 championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Last season, UCLA missed out on qualifying for the championships by .025. Amidst this pressure, first-year head coach Janelle McDonald is keeping the mood light. Hence the studio day.
“Gymnastics can keep your mind tight if you let it and you can get really fixated on one certain thing that might not be going well,” she said. “It’s really important to make sure that they’re enjoying what they’re doing. That nothing feels too big or too serious. That they’re having fun training in their sport.”
The gymnasts have a broad set of skills, but they’re often limited to the ones in their routines throughout the college season. In addition to dancing during studio days, McDonald encourages them to “play gymnastics” and break the monotony by doing big skills for the sheer sake of fun.
The Bruins had a break of 11 days — the longest of the season — leading up to the Los Angeles Regional. The last meet was the Pac-12 Championships, where UCLA placed second behind Utah by .075.
The break has been used for taking finals and physical recovery. Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Selena Harris used the time to head to the beach and get surf lessons from teammate Emma Andres after competing every weekend since this season began in December.
Harris has competed 43 routines this season, just one shy of the maximum 44, and has hit all of them. She was named Pac-12 Freshman/Newcomer of the Week six times this season, which tied a conference record.
“Practice has been a little rough for me this week, but I feel pretty good,” Harris said. “We’ve done a lot of competitions and I think I’m just burned out.”
Jordan Chiles has competed in the all-around in every meet this season and is the only Bruin ahead of her in terms of the number of routines. Chiles ended the season with All-America honors in the all-around, vault, uneven bars and floor exercise and All-Pac-12 honors in all four events and the all-around. She also had 33 individual event wins this season.
Chae Campbell also received postseason honors and was named All-America second team on vault and floor and was first-team All-Pac-12 in vault and floor.
The Bruins are dancing to Niki Minaj after a season of success, but there’s still underlying seriousness as the pressures of making it back to the NCAA championship kick in.
“I know we’re here to enjoy and love our gymnastics, but I want to win,” Harris said. “I want to win the whole thing. I want to win everything.”
UCLA at NCAA Gymnastics Los Angeles Regional When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Pauley Pavilion