Bruin gymnasts experienced a minor return to normalcy this weekend.
Upon arriving at the Jon M. Huntsman Center by bus, No. 13 UCLA gymnastics (4-1, 3-1 Pac-12) was greeted by close friends and family who had flown out to support the team in Salt Lake City.
Roughly 60 fans, dressed in various shades of Bruin blue, filed into the arena’s bright red seats and, as soon as UCLA’s gymnasts had been introduced, started a chant in support of their Bruins before being drowned out by the bass of the Red Rocks’ introduction video.
Any other season, none of this would be news, but this year, the Bruins’ 197.225-197.100 loss to the Utes marked the first time the team experienced any sort of support from the stands.
Friday’s meet was also the first time UCLA’s freshmen got to compete in front of a non-team audience in their college careers.
Freshman Chae Campbell – crowned the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after her 39.425 all-around performance – cherished the opportunity to experience a more typical NCAA gymnastics meet.
“It was a lot of fun,” Campbell said. “I was so excited to actually see people in the audience – that was amazing. They were so cute and supportive. I got to experience a little bit of normalcy and what it could be like in non-COVID times.”
The Pac-12 has prohibited fans at all conference sporting events but allows programs to decide family member attendance policies based on local public health guidelines. Utah allows family and friends of gymnasts to partially fill the empty seats.
While UCLA has become accustomed to finding its own energy and competitiveness without spectators cheering them on, junior Margzetta Frazier said the team welcomed having someone to perform for.
“Having someone to look at when you’re doing a floor routine made everything feel normal,” Frazier said. “Even though there were only a few speckles of blue in those red seats, it really does mean the world to me. It meant the world to us to have our families and close friends here who flew all the way out just to see us compete.”
The gymnasts embraced the opportunity, dancing with their supporters on various occasions and stopping to wave on their way out of the arena.
In one instance, freshmen Sara Ulias and Frida Esparza synced up their side-step dancing with a group of fans, and coach Chris Waller stayed on the floor post-meet to chat with someone in the stands.
Waller said despite being used to the 3,500-person crowds of Pauley Pavilion, the few dozen fans in the arena made their presence felt.
“(It’s all) about perspective,” Waller said. “At UCLA, if we don’t have 8,000 fans, we’re like, ‘Oh there’s not enough people; there’s not enough energy.’ Now, we get 60 close friends in the arena and you feel like the entire thing is sold out. It was amazing.”
Along with starting various UCLA chants throughout the meet, the fans initiated an 8-clap once the Bruins got off the bus, and helped the gymnasts to a season-high score per Waller.
With their next three meets in California, the Bruins may go another month before competing in front of spectators again.
Waller said he’s proud of how his team has adjusted and handled irregularities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We adjusted really well to not having fans,” Waller said. “I don’t know if they’ll ever be used to it. I hope we don’t get used to it. But the team has done a great job of relying on each other, and we’ve set out to do that since the beginning.”
And, even with their friends and family in the same building, COVID-19 protocols sent one more reminder that normalcy isn’t back just yet.
“More than anything in the world, I just want to hug them and thank them,” Frazier said. “Unfortunately, we have to do that from a distance. But still, I know it meant everything to me, and it meant everything to the girls.”