Today, for the first time, I am going to be talking about what is, to an Australian, the whacky and even slightly alarming world of
Okay, so I think I have mentioned many times before that I am Australian, so obviously we don't hear anything much about USA college gymnastics scene. But a few years ago when I was doing some volunteering in Massachusetts, I discovered that college gymnastics was televised and I was so excited. So this is where all the gymnast went after they did or didn't make an Olympic team!
College gymnastics is a very strange affair to me. In fact all American high school and college sport behaviour (as seen on tv and in the movies of course) is a little weird for Aussies. You have to understand that Australians love their sport, but it is very, very different here because we don't really have the whole college thing. We don't have cheerleaders. We don't have pep rallies (what are they anyway? And tailgate parties? Huh?) We don't have crowds at university sports events, let alone press coverage. We don't even have popular, crowd-pulling womens sports- not enough to be televised at least. Women's tennis and swimming are popular, but only really when part of big tournaments or at the Olympics and Commonwealth games. Gymnastics is rarely seen at all.
And we certainly don't have anything like NCAA gymnastics with its colours, crowds, hairdos ,music and hip hop floor routines.
Basically, it was a whole new world to me.
I am pretty sure it was a Gym dogs meet I saw that day in the states. The insane atmosphere, the sight of so many familiar gymnast's faces and the old ten score got me intrigued straight away and since then I have done my best to follow NCAA via Youtube and the individual colleges websites. (It sure helps that more Australians have been recruited into the systems. It makes it even more exciting to hear about how Olivia Vivian is doing or that Chloe Sims is continuing her career!)
Of course, the team I see most of is the Gymdogs. Not surprising considering they seem to have ALL the money, ALL the fans and therefore ALL the media coverage. I can't not like them. They look like they are having a great time, which i guess isn't hard when you have plush dorms, a ridiculously fitted-out gym and one of the best college team records out there. Grace Taylor and the Two Courtney's routines makes me really happy. I am a long time fans of the Courts. To me Kupets hasn't changed a bit (her floor routines are still spazzy and she looks and sounds and injures the same) but Courtney McCool is definitely different. She is so composed and cool (no pun intended) these days. I always though she'd be a bit of a geek when she got older, but there is something really hip and chilled about her.
I also love how Abby Stack and Taylor make me giggle in all those hilarious Georgia vids on Youtube where they are charging around doing their daggy but cute little dances. And i ADORED Katie Heenan. I think she had one of the most infectious spirits in the sport and I miss her lots.
I'm a bit of a Gators fan too. I will always gun for Rhonda Faehn to have a successful coaching career because her gymnastics one was so catastrophic at times. I love, love love Corey Hartungs floor routine (I wish they'd all quit the gator chop though. It irks me- but maybe i just don't get the whole college cheer thing) and I like, on a deeply shallow note, that they often wear blue.
But the team that has my college-gymnastics-lovin' heart has got to be...
So today's post is dedicated to reasons why I love that gang from UCLA.
For starters, Valorie Konos-Fields is one of the most fascinating NCAA coaches for having come so late to the gymnastics part of her career. Her dance background is part of what has made the UCLA floor set legendary though. She also has a terrific eye for recruitment. She talks less sports psycho-babble than Suzanne Yoculan which I appreciate AND she sounds like a bit of a secret softy. Ex- WOGA gymnasts Allison Jones said in an interview that when she called "Miss Val" to tell her she was accepting the scholarship, Val cried. Kinda Sweet.
UCLA have had two of my all time favorite U.S gymnasts in their line up at one point or another. Tasha Schwikert and Mohini Bhardwaj. Hell, they nabbed Mohini before she was Olympic captain! The Queen of Atitude, Tasha Schwikert had a ridiculously good career at UCLA, winning multiple AA titles as well as event titles and perfect tens on both bars and floor at times whilst maintaining her usual sass. Mohini had one of the most gorgeous floor routines in Bruins history, with fantastic extension moves, an interesting mix of tricks as well as her usual kick- @#$ tumbling and reputation for being a bit of a college wildchild. What can i say, I love the gymnastics bad girls. They are so few and far between!
I love the UCLA floor routines. Who could not enjoy the style, the dance and the variety Kondos-Field brings to the floor field? Each girl's routine is different, and suits not only their abilities, but their body types and temperaments. Some of Kondos-Field's greatest triumphs have to be Kate Richardson's 2004 routine which won Kate a title and the choreographer an award for its fierce originality. Stella Umeh's experimental routines were gems of their time and Kim Hamilton's guitar screeching modern dance exercise in the late eighties was simply awesome.
My personal favorite has got to be Alison Stoner's freshman floor routine from 1999 (i think). She didn't get past her freshman year due to an injury to her knee, but this routine is simply GORGEOUS. It is very old school- perhaps not as experimental as some of Field's others- but it is beautiful, lyrical and the series of close-to-floor and extension moves are to die for. This routine could nearly be considered an homage to some of the old Soviet floor stylings it is so reminiscent. And not only is the choreography divine, but the way Alison moves in and out of the dance into the gymnastics is silky smooth. There is no sense of the transition as there is with some of even the best Bruins floor workers. Kudos to both Field and Stoner for this gem.
Speaking of Alison Stoner, one of the particularly entertaining thing about the Bruins has got to be the large proportion of hilarious athlete names! Alison Stoner sounds so collegiate! Other favorites of mine are Tauny Fattone which is so fun to say. Arianna Berlin cos it sounds like the name of some European performance artist. Heidi Moneymaker was a great one. It was prescient too, because Heidi has gone on to an illustrious career in stunt doubling in some huge Hollywood films too. Kristina Comforte! Kisha Auld! Aisha Gerber's name has always kinda made me giggle too- not sure why!
Speaking of Aisha, I have always loved how The Bruin management have kind of treated Canada as their own personal recruitment fishing pond. They have been wise to the rise of Canadian gymnasts for a long time and have reeled in some of the best Canada has had to offer including Ricardson, Umeh, Toussek, Hopfner-Hibbs, Bernholtz, Peckett and Degteva over the years. Most of these girls have been among the top competitiors for their teams.
And of course, they recruited my favorite Canadian gymnasts ever, and one of my favorite gymnasts period. Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs. I have to say, it's been awesome to see Elyse in a college environment. Her tricks are still world class. She's been fairly consistent so far.
She is- perhaps slightly unexpectedly, been kicking some vault butt- but she is doing excellently all-around too.
I think the greatest thing that has come from her recruitment is that Field, with her wonderful choreography on both beam and floor has channelled some of the intensity that Elyse would perform her routines with ( an intensity that I would argue restricted her from showing much personality) and channelled into her actual choreography, giving her dance a bit of a much-needed edge. While i am, and you'd know if you'd been reading this blog for long that I am a big fan of Carol Angela Orchard's, I think that was one thing she wasn't able to give Elyse as a coach that Field has. Her UCLA routines have given her a bit of flair and style to go with her great skills and uncanny ability to recover and correct on beam.
There has alway been a wonderfully exotic mixture of ethnic backgrounds in the UCLA crew too - especially compared to some of the, how shall I put it, blonder teams. There is of course the Canadian girls. There is also Anna Li, though born in the U.S, is actually a product of two Chinese Olympic medallists. The Bruin were also smart enough to recruit Luisa Portocarrera, the exquisite gymnast from Guatemala with the gorgeous lines and beautiful dance who delighted crowds at both Worlds and Olympic Games. There have been many girls with Japanese backgrounds as well lots of African-American athletes, representing some of the cultural diversity of California. There was Mohini Bhardwaj, the U.S.A's first Indian-American Olympic medallist. Hell, they even had the Elena Degteva who was, at twelve years old, the Russian junior National Champion! I love the mix at UCLA.
As much as I love their floor work, I am also a big fan of the UCLA beam set too. I wish the girls woud work on their twist dismounts though, because ALL of them look messy in the legs, but I think again, Fields dance background helps find unique ways for them to move on beam between the tricks. I love Arianna Berlin's mount. I think Aisha Gerber's split handstand to dismount is so pretty and so old-school. Some more complex and interesting angles have been put into Hopfner-Hibbs routines while retaining the illusion, the mount and the tumbling we know and love.
My current favorite might be Nikki Tom's, though (and another funny name!). I like the whole routine, but i LOVE her pirouette in attitude. It is very, very pretty. And on a deeply shallow note, I love her hair. There is something really cool about the shape of her pony tail!
In fact, lets stay in the shallow end while i discuss another one of my favorite, favorite, favorite things about the Bruins, and it is, that's right folks, the leotards.
I think the Bruins nearly always look fantastic. Their leos are girly without being cutesy, interesting without being over the top, colourful without being garish and a little bit sassy without being slutty. And this, I think we know, and the ongoing World's Worst Leotard contest is a testament to, is no mean feat! I like that they often employ the cut-out in the back too.
Also, we have got to have Vanessa Zamarripa's (now that name is just plain impossible!) three-ten-winning vaults on this list now too. That girl's got beautiful form and one heck of a flight on her. Beautiful!
It could be said that the Bruins have had their heyday and its over. But no, I don't think so. The Bruin management have gotten smart, done some clever recruiting and gone deep. Considering their injury lists that was smart. Now they have a lot of gymnasts to choose from to put out the best line up. Its working for them this year and I think with their freshman-heavy team, they will only improve over the next couple of years.
Besides, how could you not dig the idea of doing gymnastics at UCLA? Its has a renowned academic program (we even hear about it in Australia, a legendary coach, a top gym team, an intense and colourful history as well as a beautiful campus and Californian weather!
Now I have only one question to put to other UCLA fans.... What the hell is a Bruin anyway?