UCLA Women's Gymnastics: Westwood's Best Kept Secret

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UCLA Women's Gymnastics: Westwood's Best Kept Secret
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Recently I visited the house that John Wooden built, UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, as I've done several times a year for the past few years.

However, it was not to watch a basketball game—shockingly enough, considering that with its 11 national championships, hoops are to Bruins the way football is to crosstown enemy, USC: iconic in UCLA lore.

And although it has won 19 NCAA titles of its own and has a coach in Al Scates who's a legend in his own right, I wasn't at Pauley Pavilion to see the volleyball team, either.

The team I was going to see, compared to football and basketball, is a tad under the radar in the grand scheme of college sports, though it has grown immensely over the past decade.

Compared to March Madness and the BCS, this sport doesn't get quite as much mainstream attention, not even compared to the Women's Basketball Final Four.

That is most unfortunate, because these are some of the best athletes one will ever see, young ladies who rarely stand 5'6" but can do things that Tim Tebow can only dream about.

For instance, ever tried to just stand on a four-inch piece of wood that's four feet off the ground?

Ever tried to swing from one bar to another when they're not the same height? Or do crazy tricks while jumping over a padded vault or running around a large mat?

These ladies I was going to see can run, jump, spin, twist, and dance on all of those things, and do them very well. The routines they can do are so mind-boggling and gravity-defying, it could easily debilitate the average jock.

I'm taking about a sport that has been one of the most successful programs at UCLA this century: the women's gymnastics team.

Led by the dynamic Valorie Kondos Field, who's been the head coach since 1991, the Bruin gymnasts have been nothing short of incredible in winning five NCAA championships, including four in a five-year span from 2000-2004.

Only Georgia, with ten titles, and Utah, with nine, have won more.

Many outstanding gymnasts have donned the blue leotard in Kondos Field's tenure, including Olympians such as Yvonne Tousek and Kate Richardson from Canada, and a whole slew of Americans led by Tasha Schwikert, Jamie Dantzscher, Kristen Maloney, and Mohini Bhardwaj, who was a silver medalist at the Athens Games.

The fact that these Bruins are either the first- or second-ranked academic team on campus every year is another big selling point. This program has been loaded with Academic All-Americans over the years, and continues to be.

Indeed, these are real student-athletes, which in the era of football players getting arrested or becoming ineligible due to bad grades and basketball players bailing for the NBA after one year, is a refreshing relief.

And very nice to see; I wish my grades approached these gymnasts' when I was a UCLA student.

As for this year, the Bruins have perhaps their best chance at winning an NCAA title in several years.

Anna Li is the lone senior among the bunch and a five-time All-American who, along with floor exercise All-American Brittani McCullough, is the leader of a team that has been ranked number one this season, and is always near the top of the polls.

Vanessa Zamarripa and Canadian Olympian/World medalist Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs deserve a mention for their impressive performances.

Zamarripa, a sophomore, collected three perfect tens on vault, finishing third in the all around during last year's NCAA Championships, and has picked up where she left off this season. Fellow sophomore Hopfner-Hibbs was equally outstanding in winning the Pac-10 Conference Freshman of the Year Award in 2009 and scoring as high as 9.95 on the vault and floor.

Niki Tom and Mizuki Sato have been excellent as well, both of them being all Pac-10 performers.

These are just some of the amazing young ladies that grace the mats in Westwood; they are so good at what they do that I thoroughly enjoy myself at the meets.

The only disappointment that I have in all of this is a very small one: The fact that USC seems afraid to face these athletes, as the Trojans do not field a gymnastics team, thus leaving the Bruin Gymnasts on the outside of the crosstown rivalry looking in.

I feel for these young women in that regard; it would be exciting to see the crosstown war on the vault, bars, beam, and floor.

Then again, perhaps 'SC has no gymnastics program because the Trojans know they would be dominated by their Bruin counterparts, which is undoubtedly something they don't want.

In the meantime, people need to come out to Pauley on Sunday afternoons, which is when they usually have their home meets, and support this great team, which boasts the highest average attendance in UCLA sports outside of football and men's basketball.

Here's a perfect case in point: Their opening meet against then-second ranked Utah at Pauley Pavilion drew over 5,100 fans, which was a very good crowd considering the many other sports options in L.A. The women's basketball game vs. No. 2-ranked Stanford, held the next day in the same venue, drew less than half that total.

That is saying something.

These ladies have certainly upheld the Bruins' tradition of excellence in that hallowed arena, and then some.

If you would like to see what I'm talking about, the Bruin gymnasts' upcoming meets are on Jan. 31, Feb. 14 and 21, and Mar. 14.

I highly encourage everyone to check them out. Trust me, you'll be glad that you went.

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