"Any coach will tell you: Repeating is twice as hard," says Coach Valorie Kondos Field. "It's in your face for 365 days."
To defend their title, Kondos Field says, "We realized we were going to have to train harder than ever and pull out all the stops."
Their resolve paid off—especially during the suspenseful final rotation of the competition at the University of Georgia's Stegeman Coliseum, site of this year's championships.
"If a Hollywood producer asked to produce an intense, suspenseful, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat script, it might come close to what we did," says Kondos Field.
While 8,245 Gym Dog fans furiously barked, the Bruins, leading Georgia by one-tenth of a point, headed to their final apparatus, the balance beam.
Sophomore Doni Thompson, up first, scored 9.9. Sophomore Malia Jones followed with a strong performance but had a mishap, a fall. The four remaining team members would have to "hit their routines"—that is, perform at virtual perfection—which is precisely what they did. Freshman Yvonne Tousek scored 9.95, sophomore Onnie Willis, 9.9, and freshman Kristen Maloney, 9.925. Senior Mohini Bhardwaj was up last, needing a 9.75 to win the championship. She scored a 9.9, giving UCLA its third NCAA championship title and second consecutive title. The win makes UCLA only the third school in NCAA history to win back-to-back titles.
"They were phenomenal," says Kondos Field, who, for the fourth time in six years, was named coach of the year by the National Association of College Gymnastics. "When I watch them in my memory it's like seeing them in slow motion, every finger deliberately and meticulously put in place. Their concentration was unshakable."
"People expected a lot of us, and it did get a little tense," says Bhardwaj, who also was named the nation's top senior gymnast.
"That was probably the highest pressure situation I've ever been under," agrees Willis, who co-captains the team with Bhardwaj and who was named UCLA's first-ever NCAA all-around champion. "But the really important aspect of the championship is that we could pull it together as a team. It makes the whole victory a whole lot sweeter when you know everyone has put in the same effort as you."
The team's training included keeping up with their academics.
"We get our best grades year after year during our season," says Kondos Field. "When we travel, I get them studying when they're waiting for the plane. We have study hall on the road.
"Onnie Willis is also a 4.0," she says, proudly. "Now that's a real champion."
The UCLA Gymnastics Team won their fourth and fifth NCAA titles in 2003 and 2004. - (Updated 1/07)