Inside the rise of California women’s gymnastics: A record season over a decade in the making

By Eva Geitheim | April 18, 2024
The California women's gymnastics team at the 2023 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships.
© Matthew Smith/Gymnastics Now

When Justin Howell took over as head coach for the California women’s gymnastics program in 2013, he took over a program that ranked 49th the season before and hadn’t had a winning season since 1996. Eleven years later, Cal is a formidable national title contender and finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in the country.

Justin has had plenty of help through the years to get the program to where it is now, especially from his co-head coach and wife Elisabeth Crandall-Howell, who became the co-lead over the program in 2018.

So how did Cal go from a low-to-mid-tier program to undeniably one of the best in the country?

Since the Howell takeover, the Bears have made regionals every season and have put up 10 straight winning seasons, highlighted by finishing seventh in the nation in 2023, ’21, and ’16. It’s no coincidence that eight out of Cal’s 11 NCAA All-Americans have come during this tenure.

For one, it’s taken a lot of patience. When Justin took over the coaching position, he knew he was in it for the long haul. Still, he saw no reason that the California women’s gymnastics program couldn’t match the reputation of the school’s academic excellence.

“I always felt like there’s no reason why we’re at the number one public university in the world in California. There is no reason why this gymnastic program shouldn’t match the level of academics that is Cal,” Justin told Gymnastics Now. “We can be a fantastic gymnastics program. And so when I got the call to coach, it was kind of a no brainer. … That’s when the vision really started – where we thought this program to go. We knew it was gonna take a long time. I think in the beginning, we didn’t think it would take that long to make a pretty significant jump from the people because we had a plan and a vision that define gymnastics that we wanted.”

Back to the basics

Their experience as club gymnastics coaches came in handy in taking time to develop their program. Justin spent 15 years as a club coach at Airborne Gymnastics before becoming an assistant coach at Cal in 2012.

“The club gymnastics experience really plays in here because we know how long it takes to develop as a young gymnast and finally get to level 10 or elite,” Justin said. “We’ve coached from grassroots all the way up. You have to be really, really patient as a coach, and you got to do things the right way to get to that place. It’s not different in college gymnastics; you just happen to have a lot of really, really talented athletes … but reshaping the culture, working on the foundation of gymnastics, setting the expectation, those are all things that we have a plan for, but can take a long time to slowly implement, and then, finally, fine tune it to what you want it to be.”

Even though the rise to being a top three team in the country has taken over a decade, Cal did see some pretty immediate results under the tutelage of Justin. They vaulted from 49th to 28th in his first season and 16th in his second. Since his second season at Cal, all of Howell’s teams have ranked in the top 20 annually.

A huge part of Cal’s rise and this vision coming to life is the strong form and basics the team almost always seems to perform with. The Bears field some of the most consistently clean routines, and their form has become synonymous with their program. It’s also key to their consistent success. It’s a lot easier for Cal to continually put up high scores when they have few form errors or built-in deductions.

Coach Liz also credits their club coaching experience to this success in capturing pristine form, which she considers just as important as teaching the “big” skills.

“Our roots come from teaching the very beginnings and fundamentals of gymnastics, and I have just as much passion … for seeing someone level up in the way that they perform a skill to the greatest virtuosity, length, line, beautiful form, and creating just the beautiful art that you can capture in still moments in gymnastics, as we do when somebody’s doing a double-double one floor,” Liz said. “Because those are all huge accomplishments, and I think that there’s a great deal of pride that comes from the discipline – the daily discipline and commitment that it takes to create those pictures.”

This discipline doesn’t just take place when practicing skills and performing at meets, but by bringing that form and execution to even something as simple as kicks during warmups, according to Liz.

“We look for athletes in recruiting who really are passionate about that as well,” Liz said. “That they think ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so beautiful when so and so does a ring leap and their foot is on their forehead.’ … That they can appreciate not just doing something to do it, but doing it to its absolute max.”

Underdogs no more

Even though the Howells have now been successfully implementing their vision for years, this 2024 Bears squad is shining like no other. This team is on pace to achieve more than those three squads that have peaked at No. 7 through the years.

The Bears were ranked either No. 2 or No. 3 all season except for the first week, and they have the No. 3 ranked all-arounder in the nation in eMjae Frazier, as well as numerous athletes ranked in the top 10 across events during the regular season.

Over the past couple seasons, Cal has almost been considered a “darling” team in the NCAA. They reached seventh place overall in 2023 and fell short of making it to the Four on the Floor after two shocking falls on bars during the national semifinals. Though the falls cost them a shot at the final, there was an general sentiment that making it that far was great progress for the Bears.

While that’s true – especially considering the progress the program has made under Justin and Liz – 2023 was far from a fluke for the Bears; Cal is here to stay. They are no longer on the edge of making a top eight or sneaking into the Four on the Floor – they’re bona fide contenders.

“Our team has come so far, and we’re doing so awesome,” eMjae Frazier said. “Everyone would say Cal is the underdogs, but in reality, we’re a really good team, and we belong at the top with everyone else. We’ve put in the hard work and the dedication and it just shows in competition we are very capable of being at the top, and it shouldn’t really be a surprise if we are.”

Statistically, Cal is far from the underdog of this season. Cal has averaged a 197.833 so far this season and peaked with a program record 198.550. They rank only behind Oklahoma, the back-to-back reigning NCAA champions, and LSU, who they swapped places with for the No. 2 spot much of the season. The Bears finished the regular season ranked No. 6 on vault, No. 2 on bars and beam, and No. 3 on floor.

So what is specifically driving this year’s team? After all, the primary core of this team is the same from last year aside from the loss of Nevaeh DeSouza and the addition of freshman Kyen Mayhew.

According to Coach Liz, mindfulness has played a key role in Cal’s success this season, particularly in competing at bigger meets early in the season, like the Mean Girls Super 16 in Week 1 and the Sprouts Farmers Market Collegiate Quad in Week 2.

“They definitely managed every situation really well,” Liz said. “One of the things that has stood out the most is the level of mindfulness and awareness that they’ve had in every single situation. Those are kind of the things that that you can’t prepare for in the gym.”

“For a competition, you can do all the repetitions, but once you get into a competition situation, that’s really the practice of ‘How am I going to manage the noise? How am I going to manage four teams on the floor at the same time? How am I going to manage being on the road three weekends in a row?’ So it takes a lot of mental focus, and the ability to kind of take in the information and stay calm,” Liz added. “I think that has been the most impressive thing so far.”

Sophomore eMjae Frazier has epitomized that mindfulness and taken control ahead of her competitions with her pre-meet routine. At the competition arena, Frazier eases herself with a call to her family or speaks to them if they’re attending in person to add to her comfort. Frazier also follows a family tradition started by older sister and UCLA gymnast Margzetta Frazier, where they send a pre-meet picture to the family and get ‘good luck’ messages. Margzetta also started a pre-meet tradition of listening to the song “Last Breath” by Future, which she first sent to eMjae before one of her own UCLA competitions in 2021.

On top of this, Frazier visualizes of her routines before meets to help her prepare to execute.

“I will put on my headphones and visualize my routines on each event,” Frazier said. “Not just visualize, but move my arms and my body in the way I want to compete it, and then I will lay on the floor, do some breathing, visualization, close my eyes, calm down, and feel what I want to feel throughout the whole day.”

Of course, their improved meet-day performances have also come thanks to how they’ve adjusted to the new college stick rule, which stipulates you must hold your finishing position on vault, bars, and beam for at least one second or incur a half-tenth deduction. Cal has done a good job at dialing in landings, which was part of their emphasis during the preseason.

“We’ve been super consistent… but especially with the new stick rule that has been implemented into the NCAA program; Liz and Justin definitely exaggerated that,” said standout Mya Lauzon. “We practiced that a heavy amount during practice throughout preseason.”

Not all of Cal’s progress has taken place inside the gym. Coach Justin credited the success of Lauzon and Frazier this season in particular to the two seeking leadership opportunities – both inside and outside of the gymnastics team.

Lauzon and Frazier have both excelled in the all-around and both have earned 10s on multiple events. They’re also on Cal’s Coach’s Council, which the Bears use over captains. The Coach’s Council is a role that gymnasts have the opportunity to apply to at Cal and work as leaders for the team.

Frazier calls the council “the voice of the team” and describes them as “the liasons between the coaches and the girls.” Even if it’s something as simple as picking out the leotards the team will wear during the week, Frazier enjoys taking on the mindset of “how can I help my team?”

For their coaches, this has only added to who Frazier and Lauzon are as gymnasts and people, in general.

“They’re phenomenal athletes, they always have been,” Justin said. “But to be able to perform, week in and week out, at a really high level takes a lot of discipline, a lot of motivation, and a lot of leadership to be able to do that. All the opportunities that they have sought after and embraced for themselves have led them to be incredibly confident people. And you’re starting to see that in competition.”

One day better

All of this factors into the Bears’ mission to get “one day better” – a mantra that has fueled Justin and Liz’s vision as they rocketed to the top of the rankings.

For Frazier, “one day better” helps her maintain positivity and focus in on a few areas to improve at a time, rather than worrying about everything at once:

“The whole thing is ‘What can I do each day to make something just a little bit better?’ And that’s where the ‘one day better’ comes in, because it makes you not look at the huge picture of ‘oh my gosh, that wasn’t good.’”

“Personally, positivity is something I thrive on,” Frazier added. “Just thinking about it like ‘okay, that might not have been good, but what did I fix on it this turn.’ ‘Okay I had my arms a little straighter. Just on that, it was a little better.’”

For Lauzon, this helps her avoid dwelling on previous routines or mistakes. It’s also led to her improvement on bars – an event she’s competed more than a dozen times this season as an all-arounder.

Beyond all the work and focus, this team simply loves gymnastics.

Coach Justin described one of their core values as joy, which is something he said shows up in both Frazier and Lauzon’s gymnastics. Coach Liz talked about having time each week to “play” and experiment with new skills they might not compete – which led to the creation of Gabby Perea’s unique dismount – a side somi connected to a 1.5-twisting back tuck off the side of the beam.

This overall culture is one reason Cal should be expected to remain a contender beyond 2024.

Even if they lose key seniors like Perea and Andi Li, the Bears are already seeing contributions from newcomers like Mayhew, who put in a 9.950 in her vault debut and made a splash on floor with consistent scores above 9.9.

Along with the new freshmen, the team is looking forward to using their new practice facility. The renovations are expected to be done by next school year and will continue to draw in more top recruits.

“It’s going to create great opportunities in recruiting; it’s going to create great opportunities for us to train athletes above the level that they’re competing,” Justin said.

As the program celebrates their fifty-year anniversary all season, it’s clear this is just the start for the Golden Bears.

“Honestly, 50 years is pretty remarkable,” Lauzon said. “It’s amazing to see how far the program has come.”

Despite all the success, Coach Justin is trying to stay grounded.

“We’re celebrating our 50th year of the program,” Justin said. “The ranking is not something that we can control, but it is indicative of the ability of our team and we see that every day … Going back to the one day better mission, if they are really doing everything they can to be one day better, all of those other things are gonna start to fall into place – accolades will come, successes will come.”