UCLA's Olympic gymnasts wagered fortune and fame against college eligibility
Before the 2017 college gymnastics season got underway, UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field had everyone on her team take a personality assessment. She was surprised to find that three gymnasts scored almost identically: freshmen Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross and volunteer assistant coach Jordyn Wieber.
All three turned out to be Type Six, which the creator of the test, The Enneagram Institute, defines in part as, "The committed, security-oriented type. Sixes are reliable, hard-working, responsible, and trustworthy. ... At their best: internally stable and self-reliant, courageously championing themselves and others." It is also the rating Kondos Field and the rest of the UCLA team referred to as "the perfectionist one."
When you consider the backgrounds of Kocian, Ross and Wieber, it's probably no surprise they scored the way they did. All three are also U.S. Olympic gold medalists.
Leading up to the 2016-2017 school year, the Bruins had one of the most impressive incoming classes in NCAA history, with commitments from Kocian, Ross and Simone Biles. While Biles ultimately gave up her NCAA eligibility by turning professional shortly before her five-medal performance at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Kocian, who helped lead Rio's Final Five to team gold and won an individual silver medal on the uneven bars, and Ross, who earned a gold medal as part of the Fierce Five in London in 2012, remained committed to the program.
Both Kocian and Ross started school in September, just weeks after Kocian returned home from Rio. In January, they became the first Olympic gold medalists to ever compete at the NCAA level. And this weekend, UCLA will seek its seventh national title -- and first since 2010 -- at the NCAA championships in St. Louis.
With Wieber as their volunteer assistant coach, the trio might be the most recognized group in college gymnastics. But they represent two distinct gymnastics paths, ones that result from making an often stressful and complex decision.
Many elite gymnasts are teenagers, and Olympic hopefuls are often in high school. But at that age, they have to take a hard, honest look at their own marketability, media savvy and chance for individual success when determining post-Olympic plans -- and it's often well before they even know that they'll be on the Olympic team. While someone like Biles (who is considered one of the best to ever do the sport) has the perfect combination of talent and charisma, most won't be able to achieve such fame.
So athletes must ask themselves if foregoing their college eligibility is worth the risk of seeking a non-guaranteed -- and typically short-lived -- window of fame and varying fortune.
Kocian, Ross and Wieber faced this very question before their respective Olympic Games, and they each had to determine just how important competing at the college level was to them. But neither Kocian nor Ross were in all-around contention leading up to their Olympic Games (Kocian was used as a specialist on bars, while Ross competed on bars and beam in the team event only), so their window of opportunity was likely smaller than that of several of their teammates. With the exception of 2012 vault star and viral-meme generator McKayla Maroney, gymnasts who are specialists rarely have the same offers or requests as their peers who compete in all or most events.
Wieber, on the other hand, won the all-around title at the world championships in 2011 and began receiving countless offers from agents and brands wanting to work with her. She was forced to decide between accepting such offers, and potentially receiving lucrative amounts of money and numerous once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, or keeping her collegiate eligibility and not making a dime for what was looking to be a very successful Olympics.
She was 15.
"I just remember talking to my parents for so long and writing down all the pros and the cons," Wieber, now 21, says. "Going pro in gymnastics is very risky -- you could make the decision to turn pro, sign with an agent and then get injured the next day and never compete again. My parents definitely helped me weigh all the different options and scenarios.
"It ended up coming down to the one thing: Am I going to make enough money to pay for my college education? Because otherwise I would have gotten a college scholarship."
While Wieber didn't have as successful of a 2012 Olympic run as she had initially hoped for, narrowly losing out on all-around qualifying spot to teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, she helped win team gold and earned sponsorships with brands such as adidas. She participated in the post-Olympic Kellogg's Tour with her teammates, and enrolled at UCLA in the fall of 2013. Though she couldn't compete for the school, she still wanted to be involved and asked to be the student manager. Kondos Field agreed.
For Kocian and Ross, the decision was a daunting choice as well. But ultimately the lure of competing for UCLA, in addition to their long-term career goals (Ross is majoring in biomedical engineering, and Kocian hopes to one day be a pediatric doctor or nurse), swayed them.
"That decision wasn't too hard for me, because I knew that I always enjoyed going to school, and that was something I enjoyed just as much as gymnastics," said Ross, who retired from elite gymnastics in February 2016 after a series of injuries and a 4 1/2-inch growth spurt. "Going to college was something I had always planned for. Sometimes it's definitely tough, seeing [former national teammates] doing shows like 'Dancing With the Stars' or being sponsored by different clothing brands and stuff, but there's always time for that after college."
Kocian hasn't officially retired from elite gymnastics. ("It's still in the back of my mind. I'm not completely done," she says.) She agrees it's been tough to miss some of the opportunities her Olympic teammates, who all turned professional, have gotten. But she says she's grateful for how accommodating UCLA has been to make sure she can attend many of the events she's been invited to, including the Golden Globes and the CMT Awards, and allowing her to perform in a number of stops on the Kellogg's Tour in the fall.
And while they might not be competing on a television show every week or appearing in commercials, they do still get recognized almost everywhere they go -- including in the dining hall or on their way to class.
"I'll get stopped maybe once or twice a day on campus," said Ross. "And our backpacks do not help, because it has our last name and 'gymnastics' written on it. It's cool, though, to be surrounded by people who love and watch the sport, too, and that's why they're asking. I always have to say, 'I just got out of practice, excuse my sweaty face!'"
Kocian and Ross began dominating from the season's first meet, a win over Arkansas, at which Kocian took the all-around title and won three events and Ross tied for first place on bars. Since their debut in January, the pair have racked up a number of titles, honors and perfect 10s. Kocian won six all-around titles during the regular season despite having virtually no time to rest and recover after the Olympics, and Ross nabbed the first perfect 10 ever recorded on beam at the Pac-12 championships, as well as the conference's freshman-of-the-year honors. But, perhaps more important, Kondos Field is in awe of who they are as people -- in and out of the gym.
"I knew that Kyla and Madison would come in and just be diligent and hardworking and compete well and all that, but their level of passion and commitment to the team is surprising." she said. "I just feel like they enrich the program so much. Regardless of what we're scoring or not scoring, their commitment to the team, their excitement, their enthusiasm for anything we do -- no matter how stupid they may think the game is we're going to play -- they just have bought in 100 percent. I really wasn't expecting that."
Remembering an early-season meet against Arizona State when Ross struggled on bars and fell, Kondos Field was worried the star freshman's ego would be bruised and she would need to help build back her confidence. But she found the opposite was true.
"The normal for someone of that magnitude or that celebrity is to be very embarrassed when that happens and they kind of shut down, and you could tell she was upset, but she bounced right back and went right up to the next person, smiled, and said, 'You got this!'" said Kondos Field. "I was taken aback. Then we go to vault, she hits vault, then we go to floor, she sits down on her last pass.
"She's stunned, and this is just not Kyla Ross -- one of the most consistent athletes who has ever been in the sport. Again, at that point, I thought, I have to go do damage control. But I look over, and Madison is up next, and there's Kyla cheering for her and laughing so hard. I was so surprised.
"At the end of the meet, I said to Kyla, 'You have no idea what you staying in the game, and staying positive and excited, how that allowed your teammates to then release their brilliance and continue.' She looked at me, so authentically, and said, 'Oh my gosh, Ms. Val, I never want to let my team down! I felt bad that I had misses, but I knew I could help them in other ways.' So that level of passion for the team -- I'm blown away."
Kocian and Ross both credit Wieber as helping with their transition to UCLA, both in and out of the gym. As a fellow former Olympian, she knows all too well about adjusting to life after the Games. Wieber had grown up worshiping the older gymnasts at her club in Michigan who went on to compete in college, and she had always known that was something she wanted to do. She fell in love with the program at UCLA and wanted to be a part of it.
After giving up her eligibility, Wieber became the student manager of the UCLA team. She spent three years carrying around mats and doing other less-than-glamorous responsibilities, and then was named a volunteer assistant coach before the start of this season.
When she first came to UCLA, she was originally planning on continuing her gymnastics career with her eyes set on Rio, and she started training at the team's facility. Due to NCAA rules, she was not allowed to practice with the team, so she was forced to come in the pre-dawn hours every day. She was balancing schoolwork with her responsibilities as student manger, as well as adjusting to dorm life. It was a challenge -- and a lonely one at that.
"It was February of her freshman year, she had been here six months, and she showed up to my office, with these big tears coming down her face," remembered Kondos Field. "And she said, 'Is there any way I can give back all the money to compete with my team?' I said there wasn't.
"She even said she would pay for her scholarship. 'I just want to do gymnastics. I just want to be a part of the team,' she said. It's such a tragedy, to have to make this decision when you're so young, and in a sport where your window of opportunity is so small. No one should have to make that choice."
Wieber says she now has no regrets and is grateful for all the opportunities turning professional afforded her. Deciding she had achieved all of her gymnastics goals and excited about her next chapter, Wieber ultimately retired from the sport and focused on her courses and working with the Bruins. She is now the primary floor coach for the team.
In the process, she's learned just how much she loves coaching. After graduating in May, she is tentatively planning on remaining with the team while she works on her master's degree. She hopes to one day be the UCLA head coach -- a move Kondos Field is firmly in agreement with. "I'll be sitting in Pauley Pavilion watching her coach in 20 years," she said.
Twelve teams qualified for this weekend's national championship, and half of those teams will advance to Saturday's "Super Six" championship round. The Bruins finished first in their regional in Champaign, Illinois, and are currently ranked fifth in the nation. UCLA is one of just three schools (along with Oklahoma and LSU) to have achieved a team score of 198 or better (out of 200) this season. The Bruins are an underdog to win, with Oklahoma and LSU as the favorites, but the team title is a possibility.
Gymnasts also compete for individual titles during Friday's semifinal action. Kocian is tied for fifth place in the all-around standings entering the season's final weekend, behind fellow former national teammates Maggie Nichols (Oklahoma) and MyKayla Skinner (Utah), and Ross leads the nation on bars and is tied for fourth on beam.
While both Kocian and Ross would love to win an individual title, they both say their main goal is to win a national title with their team.
"I think a national championship would be right under [winning two Olympic medals], in terms of accomplishments," said Kocian. "It's such a huge deal."
And for Wieber, it perhaps would mean even more. While she hasn't been able to physically compete for the team, her insight and leadership have been invaluable.
"If I could help lead a team as a member of the coaching staff to a national title, that would rank very high for me in my life," she said. "I'm so emotionally invested, and this is just what I love. This has been the greatest experience over the past four years, and if during my senior year we could win the national championship, I would be very, very excited. That would be right up there with the [Olympic] gold medal."