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Inside new UCLA gymnastics coach Janelle McDonald’s work restoring the Bruins program

Despite four years of experience at UCLA for Margzetta Frazier, Yates Gym suddenly didn’t feel like home. The three-time All-American who returned for a fifth year walked into UCLA’s training gym this summer and was struck by how tense things felt. It wasn’t natural. It didn’t feature any spontaneous dance breaks.

“Is this UCLA?” Frazier wondered.

After almost three decades of consistent leadership from Valorie Kondos Field and unbridled joy that resulted in seven national championships and almost annual viral floor routines, UCLA has lost some of its luster.

The Bruins have had three head coaches during Frazier’s five-year career. They’ve missed the national championship meet as a team during back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.

Now they’re turning to Janelle McDonald for a reboot.

While UCLA previously appeared to focus on extending its championship legacy by promoting longtime assistant Chris Waller and appointing assistants with UCLA ties, McDonald’s hire marks a true new era, beginning with Saturday’s season-opening meet against Auburn, Oklahoma and Michigan at 6 p.m. in Las Vegas. McDonald, a former California assistant who joined the college coaching ranks only five years ago, is an outsider to UCLA’s “Bruin Bubble.”

Perhaps that makes her more qualified than anyone to rebuild it from scratch.

“Whenever you’re struggling on anything, in life or in sport,” McDonald said, “you want to go back to the basics.”

Between sky-high release skills, perfectly vertical handstands and a stuck dismount, Frazier has many high-scoring elements in her bar routine that the 2021 Pac-12 bars champion needed to fine-tune before the season. But it was one element that doesn’t even get scored that caught McDonald’s eye.

The way Frazier moved from low to high bar — simply standing up on the low bar and falling forward to grab the high bar — didn’t look right. It needed to be sharper, crisper, McDonald said. Frazier, a former U.S. national team member, had never heard a critique of such an inconsequential piece of her routine.

“It’s the details you don’t even think about that make her such a great coach,” Frazier said.

McDonald has no high-level gymnastics experience of her own but has quickly established a reputation for technical training that yields exceptional results. She specializes in bars, where she coached Cal’s first individual NCAA champion. The Bears tied a 17-year-old NCAA record on bars in 2021. Last year, the Bruins had their worst season average on the event since 2006.

With Olympians and All-Americans, UCLA’s talent was never in question. It was just a matter of which team would show up during each competition. Scores started at a season-opening 194.85, the worst team total since 2015, and built toward an encouraging 197.65 in a tight rivalry meet against Utah on Feb. 4. Two weeks later, the team stumbled to a 195.475 against Arizona before recovering with a 198.05, the best score since 2019, two weeks later.

“My ultimate goal is to have a team of athletes that love on each other, that are in it together. … Winning and success, however you want to define it, is going to be a byproduct of doing all those things correctly.”

— UCLA gymnastics coach Janelle McDonald

Consistency is the foundation of McDonald’s focus at UCLA. To her, it is built from an array of deceptively simple drills. Junior Chae Campbell, who led the Bruins in all-around average last year, said McDonald’s arsenal of exercises activate tiny muscles she has never considered. UCLA gymnasts who have excelled at the top levels of Junior Olympic and elite competition hadn’t done some of McDonald’s basic training techniques in years.

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Not everyone was happy about starting at square one.

Frazier said she hates basics. But after sitting out most of last year because of a broken foot, Frazier said she needed them to rediscover her form and fix old habits. Now she feels better than ever.

“If my gymnastics is the best it’s ever looked, it’s because of her,” Frazier said.

The basics have paid off in the gym. McDonald quickly started seeing stronger handstand lines and taller landing positions from every team member. After the Bruins missed out on nationals by 0.025 points last year, they realize every deduction matters.

For new UCLA gymnastics coach Janelle McDonald, building a team culture is more important than a perfect floor routine — at least at the moment.

(Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)

The demands on McDonald are never-ending. Her mind is always racing, although it’s rarely about technical gymnastics skills anymore.

A first-time head coach, McDonald is quickly learning that her new job description is more about building a culture than refining the next perfect 10 routine. Every day has presented a new challenge in learning how to manage personalities. She wonders whether she needs to speak to an individual after practice or how everyone on the team can continue to grow toward the best versions of themselves.

The result was a measured preseason regimen that balanced training in the gym with light-hearted moments outside. McDonald surprised team members with a trip to Disneyland. They had a bonfire at the beach. Gymnasts gathered at sophomore Emma Malabuyo’s apartment for Friendsgiving.

Planning moments together outside of the gym has been intentional by both the coaches and the gymnasts. The cracks in UCLA’s famously joyful culture exposed last year after controversy surrounding how the previous coaching staff handled accusations of racism and bullying. couldn’t be solved by a simple staff change.

Campbell opened her door to help.

Campbell and roommate Katie McNamara hosted a team lunch the day before UCLA’s preseason exhibition meet, the first in a new tradition for home meets. While team members regularly ate dinner together before road meets, the same care wasn’t paid at home, Campbell noted. The Bruins wanted to fix it.

“We really wanted to focus on having that team bond, which honestly was a little bit lost last year,” Campbell said. “I think that this year has been all about rebuilding.”

Approaching the season opener, Campbell said she believed the team’s bond would be its greatest strength this year. Hopeful to make a positive first impression on fans eager to see flashes of the joyful UCLA team of old, McDonald was prouder of the work the team has done outside of the gym than inside.

“I hope they will see how connected the team is,” McDonald said of what she wanted fans to see from the Bruins, “and I hope that they start to see the gymnastics that they’ve always grown to love from UCLA.”

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McDonald says she knows what she signed up for.

The legacy of UCLA gymnastics and the standard of championships within the athletic department demand success. Since women’s gymnastics joined the NCAA in 1982, UCLA had missed the national meet as a team only three times before the current lull.

McDonald understands the pressure to return. But she rarely talks about it with her team.

“Winning is not my ultimate goal right now,” McDonald said. “My ultimate goal is to have a team of athletes that love on each other, that are in it together. … Winning and success, however you want to define it, is going to be a byproduct of doing all those things correctly.”

The conservative statement sounds counterintuitive for a coach who admits she engages in one-sided competitions against unwitting strangers who happen to find themselves side-by-side with her on the stairs. But in a sport that doesn’t match athletes in direct competition like football, gymnastics doesn’t value the traditional black-and-white, win-or-lose results. The first time that a true victory matters each season is at the NCAA regional meet at the end of March. UCLA will be one of four host teams this year with a chance to end its nationals drought.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the 2020 postseason, Frazier is UCLA’s only gymnast who has competed at nationals in a team setting. She says she hopes to end her career on a high note, but that doesn’t mean she’s motivated by returning to college’s biggest stage. To her, the UCLA gymnastics legacy is more than scores.

“I want to just entertain as many people as I can and I want to be the most memorable,” Frazier said. “I really don’t care about winning.”

Even Kondos Field, the legendary coach that turned UCLA into a national powerhouse and internet sensation, said she never cared about winning. The seven national championships seemed like a subplot to the pure joy emanating from gymnasts who were rediscovering happiness in a punishing sport.

For a team in flux, it’s the athletes who will continue to star, win over fans and set the direction of the program, McDonald said.

“The student-athletes that want to be here and perform for our team, they stand out. The way that they perform, the fun that they have, the energy they bring, I think that is something special in our sport,” McDonald said. “So of course, they want to compete well and they want to keep adding to the legacy of this program and they’re going to keep working so hard to do that, but I think the fans love our team because of who the student-athletes are, what they stand for and how they show up at every competition. I don’t think any of that is going to change any time soon.”

Frazier called the reputation that surrounded the program an “effervescence.” It dimmed last year and struggled to reignite during the early days of a new staff. But as music blared in Yates Gym with less than a week before the season opener, Frazier said it was returning.

Between turns on beam and Bruins lined up around the floor, they broke out dancing again.

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