Party at Pauley: UCLA gymnastics opens home slate with a few new faces and one goal

By Eva Geitheim | January 27, 2024
UCLA gymnastics head coach Janelle McDonald reacts after Emma Malabuyo’s bars routine at the 2024 Mean Girls Super 16.
© Amy Sanderson/Gymnastics Now

The UCLA gymnastics team is set to take the floor at Pauley Pavilion for the first time this season on Saturday in a dual meet against Washington. The meet marks the fourth of the season – through which the Bruins are 2-7 in tight battles – and approximately three months until nationals.

Last spring, UCLA fell just short of the NCAA Four on the Floor, finishing fifth and missing out on the national final for the third straight year. The last time the Bruins made the final was in 2019 – a year after their title-winning effort in 2018.

Yet the team is optimistic that they can change both of those droughts this season. Before the first meet of the season, head coach Janelle McDonald noted the overall sentiment of the team was “excited” for what’s to come, and despite the losing record, and losing key contributors like Jordan Chiles and Ana Padurariu, the Bruins are averaging a 196.733 and 15th in the nation.

Doubts have been cast on UCLA after the loss of Chiles (USA) and Padurariu (Canada), who took a gap year to train for the 2024 Olympic Games. While McDonald has noted that losing Chiles and Padurariu were big, she believes there are other gymnasts who will take this opportunity to step up and keep the Bruins from losing a step.

Two of those gymnasts include transfer Nya Reed (Florida) and freshman Katelyn Rosen.

The former elite, Rosen, is a gymnast McDonald believes will have a “big impact” on the Bruins this year, especially after she was named to the preseason Pac-12 Newcomer Watch List. Rosen is expected to be an all-around contributor at some point in the season (she’s competed three events so far), and McDonald is excited to see her “beautiful” gymnastics. Watch for Rosen to potentially make that all-around debut Saturday after exhibitioning floor last week.

McDonald added that Reed will primarily help UCLA’s floor and vault lineups, as exhibited by her already averaging a 9.908 on floor through three meets. Reed’s floor routine, which is a tribute to her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, has already gone viral after reaching almost two million views on X (formerly known as Twitter). Reed scored two perfect 10s on floor in 2022 as a Gator, and she could be the breakout star of the UCLA floor party that is renowned everywhere, but especially in Pauley Pavilion.

Another comeback to watch in the Bruins’ Pauley debut is Frida Esparza, who missed the entirety of the 2023 season due to injury. Esparza has struggled on her main event, bars, early this season but could be a key score if she can once again find consistency on the event. She has a career high of 9.925.

Outside of a Four on the Floor run, junior Emma Malabuyo and sophomore Selena Harris are striving to improve the team score every week. In 2023, UCLA averaged a total team score of 197.702 and eclipsed the 198 mark three times. They posted their highest score, 198.275, twice toward the end of the season: versus Iowa State in the final week of the regular season and at the Los Angeles Regional. Malabuyo added that another of their goals is “winning the Pac-12.” To which Harris chimed in, “By ourselves.”

These high expectations could intimidate some, but Harris notably “loves the pressure.” Her ability to handle pressure with ease is a big reason that Harris hit every routine during her freshman year and regularly puts up scores of 9.9+. Her “cool” has positively affected her younger teammates as well. Harris shared that the freshmen stand next to her because of her calm presence, and she likes getting the opportunity to alleviate their competition anxiety.

Beyond the team’s success, Harris has individual goals she’s trying to hit as well.

“The mindset is to go even bigger than what I did freshman year,” Harris said. “To go bigger and to have harder goals. I want a lot of tens.”

Harris has already gone bigger by competing a double layout in her floor routine, which took the place of her full-twisting double back that she used in last year’s routine.

“I’ve been wanting to compete a double layout on floor for almost five years now,” Harris said. “I would train it and then season would come and I’d be like ‘oh no, I don’t want to do it.’ … My heart was full when I was finally able to do something I’ve really wanted to do for so many years. I was happy I stuck it and everything [at Meet the Bruins].”

Yet for as good as she’s been, she still finds places to improve. Even after a phenomenal freshman year in which Harris was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and finished sixth in the nation in the all-around, Harris revealed that she “binge-watched” all her routines from last year to look for where she can improve her execution and total scores. This has caused her to focus on polishing her form and adjusting to the new college stick rule.

While their record may not reflect it, UCLA has contended with some of the nation’s top teams already this year and has approximately two months to get lineups set, improve consistency, and reach peak form for a postseason run.

It’s clear the Bruins are still coming into their own, as every team is at this point in the season, and another key part of that transformation is a party at Pauley, where magic happens and stars are born.