UCLA’s Journey to the NCAA Championships Includes Familiar Faces

By Ashley Wijangco

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UCLA will took to the competition floor Friday with the hopes of advancing to Saturday’s Super Six and winning its seventh national championship. The Bruins earned their spot in the championship two weeks prior by winning the Champaign Regional in Champaign, Illinois.The regional wasn’t just where UCLA clinched a spot at nationals, though. It was where the team came across several familiar faces from just one team: host Illinois.

Comforte’s Family Reunion
In 2006, then-UCLA freshman Kristina Comforte qualified to the NCAA National Championships as an individual competitor in the all-around and on vault. Associate head coach Chris Waller remembers this time in Comforte’s career and how she was upset her team hadn’t qualified to nationals. Because of that, Comforte was “hellbent on winning.”During vault warmups, Comforte practiced multiple vaults — as many as seven different ones — but crashed most of them. The ones she landed, though, she stuck with for the competition: a Yurchenko full, which scored at 9.9625, and a layout Podkopayeva, which scored at 9.8375. They earned her second place on the event.

When Comforte, head coach Valorie Kondos Field and Waller reminisced on this moment, they all laughed. But that’s not to say Comforte is OK with how she finished.

“I’m still upset I didn’t win!” she said.

It’s fitting, though.

Kondos Field, who coached Comforte during her time at UCLA, emphasized intensity, “in big, bold capital letters,” when speaking of her former athlete.“I had to make sure my intensity matched hers while maintaining my coaching philosophies,” Kondos Field said. “She would do 50 vaults if we let her to get it right.”

Comforte went on to compete at UCLA from 2006-2008. In that time, she became a five-time All-American. And those three seasons were enough for her to become of one the program’s “legends,” as Kondos Field put it.

“If any team could have a whole team of Kristina Comfortes, you’re going to win a national championship every single year,” Kondos Field

So thankful for @missvalkondos. Love you so much □□

A post shared by Kristina Comforte (@kcomforte) on

 

said.Comforte retired before her senior season began due to a torn labrum in her left shoulder. She then transitioned to being an undergraduate assistant coach. Kondos Field mentioned her shoulder affected her throughout her career as a Bruin, making it so “she never realized her potential in college.”

“It was heartbreaking,” Kondos Field added.

Comforte excelled as a coach just as she excelled as a gymnast. Her former mentor called her transition to coaching “wonderful” and “seamless.” Now Comforte is at Illinois as one of the women’s gymnastics team’s assistants, so she was reunited with her former coaches when UCLA was selected for the Champaign Regional.

The former UCLA All-American didn’t find it too strange to be on opposing sides as her former school during the meet, though. She still makes regular trips to Los Angeles and speaks with Kondos Field often, calling her when she needs advice.

The one thing that was odd for her was not being able to cheer for the Bruins because of her status as an Illinois coach.

“It was a little bit different for me, just seeing all the UCLA fans that I’ve known forever doing the UCLA chant, and I can’t participate in it because I’m not there anymore,” Comforte said. “That was a little bit odd for me. But other than that, they’ll always be a part of my family. Even if I’m at a different school, it doesn’t matter because I know I support them and they support me.”

Reflecting on her time at UCLA, Comforte called it “the greatest experience of her life,” one that has helped her as a coach now.

“A lot of times, I find myself saying the same things that Val would say to me,” Comforte laughed.

Sisters Forever
Ten years after first meeting each other at Twistars USA Gymnastics Club, Jordyn Wieber and Maci Sump met again at the Champaign Regional, but this time, it wasn’t as teammates. It wasn’t even as gymnasts. Rather, the two met again as volunteer assistant coaches.Wieber is in her first season as volunteer assistant coach for UCLA, while Sump just finished up her second season in the same position for Illinois. With such responsibilities, the two Michigan natives don’t get to keep in touch often, but it hasn’t affected their relationship.

“It’s like we never left Twistars,” Sump said in an email. “Jo is the same person I knew back in club gymnastics as I do now. It was great to see her a few weeks ago and chat for a little bit at regionals here in Champaign.”

The two were in the same training group at Twistars. For Sump, Wieber was someone she could look up to.

“We were the group that got our assignments done, but we also knew how to have a fun time and joke with each other,” Sump wrote. “That’s what I liked about Jo because even though she was in her prime time of training, she knew when she needed to focus and when she would laugh and crack jokes with us.”

Wieber found it cool that she and Sump are in the same position now. Both women are looking to continue with gymnastics as coaches: Wieber hopes to become UCLA’s next head coach, and Sump is pursuing a master’s degree in athletic coaching education.

After having known her for so long and having seen what she is capable of, Sump has nothing but confidence for Wieber and her desired future.

“She was such a great gymnast and is so knowledgeable coming from what she has been through that UCLA’s coaching staff and their student athletes are lucky to have her with them,” Sump wrote. “I know she is going to be a great coach and do great things in the future.”

Former Teammates, Forever Friends
When thinking of regional selections earlier this season, Katelyn Ohashi saw Seattle as her personal preference for UCLA to compete at because of all the family she has in that area. But when the NCAA announced UCLA would compete at the Champaign Regional, Ohashi wasn’t disappointed. It meant she would see her best friend, Illinois sophomore Lizzy LeDuc, for a second year in a row.At the Salt Lake City Regional in 2016, UCLA and Illinois were at the same competition. When LeDuc performed on floor, the Bruins were on a bye. UCLA just so happened to be right next to the floor, and so Ohashi got a good view of LeDuc’s routine. When LeDuc finished her performance, she pointed to Ohashi before running back to her team for congratulatory high-fives.

​Ohashi may not have gotten her top choice in regional meets, but she was happy about getting to see LeDuc again and getting to be in such close proximity.The two gymnasts first met at WOGA years ago.

“I think I started [at WOGA] the day after her,” Ohashi said. “We kind of knew each other from elite testing and level 10 type of things. As soon as we started WOGA together, we clicked really well and became best friends there.”

LeDuc didn’t stay at WOGA, though, and went on to train at several other gyms, while Ohashi stayed put. Despite that, the two remained best friends and still do even though college has increased the physical distance between them.

When LeDuc learned of UCLA’s selection to the Champaign Regional, she contacted Ohashi and

expressed her excitement over her best friend coming. The night UCLA got to Champaign, LeDuc even went to Ohashi’s hotel room to say hi and introduce her best friend to her boyfriend.Ohashi feels that she was and has been able to maintain her friendship with LeDuc because of their similar personalities and LeDuc’s caring nature.

“I feel like I can trust her with everything,” Ohashi said. “If I were to go to someone, it was always her. She knows how to care for everyone. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about her.”

Reunited and It Feels So Good
Because her team was hosting a regional meet, Illinois sophomore Brielle Nguyen didn’t have to wait to find out where the Illini were going to compete. Rather, she would find out who would be coming to her school, and she undoubtedly knew there was one she wanted to be there.
A UCLA selection would mean she would be reunited with two of her former club teammates, Felicia Hano and Kyla Ross—the latter of whom is someone she has trained at the same gym with since she was 12 years old.“I remember going to Gym-Max when I was 12, and my eyes went to her because she was an elite,” Nguyen said. “Just watching her every single day really inspired me.”

For Nguyen, Ross wasn’t just someone she could look up to; the two would become good friends. They even went to prom together with other

NCAA regionals✔️ ft. my favorite illini□□

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friends. So UCLA coming to Champaign wouldn’t just be a Gym-Max reunion; it would also be friends seeing each other after months of school has forced them to be apart.“Right when (Hano and I) found out we’re coming here to Illinois, we get a group text from Brielle,” Ross said. “And she’s like, in all caps, ‘OH MY GOD, YOU’RE COMING!’”

On UCLA’s first night in Champaign, Nguyen made a trip to see Ross at the hotel she was staying at, and excitement ensued.

“We screamed when we saw each other because we haven’t seen each other since the summer,” Ross said.

Nguyen didn’t feel like the time apart made any difference, though. When asked what it was like to see her former clubmate of six years after months of being apart, she said it felt like they hadn’t been away from each other.

In the time they’ve spent apart, a lot has changed. Nguyen went through her second NCAA regular season. Ross started collegiate gymnastics, has earned perfect 10s and was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Now, she’s set to compete in her first NCAA Championships.

“I’m so proud of her,” Nguyen said of Ross. “She deserves everything. She deserves all of that.”

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