Olympians Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian find closure after abrupt end to UCLA gymnastic careers

SVP tips his hat to seniors on Day 4 of #SeniorNight (2:43)

Scott Van Pelt looks around the country, from UCLA gymnastics and Cornell hockey to high school hoops, to honor those whose seasons were cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (2:43)

Across all of the NCAA, seniors were left asking, "What if?" when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the remaining winter and spring sporting events in March. Here are the stories that show the sudden, complicated, controversial and emotional ending athletes have been coming to grips with over the past few weeks.

A day after learning their gymnastics careers were unceremoniously over, Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian joined their UCLA teammates for one last dance party.

It wasn't how they planned on commemorating their renowned time in the sport, but after the coronavirus pandemic prematurely and unexpectedly ended the NCAA season, their options were limited. They wanted to soak in one last time in the gym with each other and the rest of the team.

Besides, no one could think of a more fitting conclusion for their time on the team that resulted in a 2018 national championship, a slew of individual titles and records and more fun than either had ever thought possible in the sport.

So the Bruins came together; some performed their floor routines, others did their best impressions of their teammates, and some just danced. For a program known for its show-stopping choreography and performances on floor -- senior Gracie Kramer was one of two in the nation to earn a 10.0 on the event this season, and junior Nia Dennis went viral with her Beyonce-inspired routine -- it just made sense.

"I think the biggest takeaway for all of us was that we were unable to control any it," Ross said. "[Coach] Chris [Waller] made a point all week that we, the seniors, needed to have something we felt we were able to control. And for us, that was a dance party. I don't think it mattered if people were doing hard skills or just dancing, it was just something, maybe the only thing, we could do to feel that sense of closure. For most of us, that just meant dancing together, so that's what we ended up doing."

Ross, 23, and Kocian, 22, made history the moment they first competed as members of UCLA's team in January 2017. The duo became the first Olympic gold medalists to compete at the NCAA level. Over the course of the next three years, the pair, who are roommates and close friends, continued to add their names to the history books with each victory and title.

They were just days away from senior night, their final regular-season meet, when the rumors started swirling. There were three confirmed coronavirus cases on campus, and it was announced there would not be spectators in attendance for the meet, including family members who were supposed to be part of the festivities. Before they had a chance to fully grasp that development, the Pac-12 canceled all events, including the upcoming conference championships. Waller shared the news with his devastated team in a meeting, but everyone was still holding out hope the NCAA would still hold its championships. Ross said it was already feeling like the longest week of her life as she tried to keep up with all the changes.

It all came to a crashing halt with a single tweet from the NCAA a few hours later.

Kocian was sitting in her off-campus apartment when her other two roommates, fellow seniors Felicia Hano and Mercedez Sanchez, burst into her room. Hano read the post aloud: "NCAA cancels remaining winter and spring championships."

Ross was in the shower at the time. They decided to wait until she was finished to let her know. Moments later, the four teammates sat together and cried.

"It was so surreal," Kocian said. "It was just like, 'Well, I guess that's the end of it.' It was so weird to find out that way, and it was heartbreaking to have it finish like that, especially to not even get our senior meet. You look forward to that since the beginning of your college career, and we didn't get that."

Ross and Kocian arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 2016 with sky-high expectations and looking for a fresh start in the sport. Ross, the youngest member of the 2012 "Fierce Five" Olympic gold-medal winning team and the 2013 world all-around silver medalist, and Kocian, who won team gold and a silver on bars at the 2016 Rio Olympics, made the challenging decision to maintain their collegiate eligibility despite the lure of various sponsorship and endorsement opportunities. They both had their hearts set on competing for the Bruins.

It was clear from their very first history-making meet they had made the right call. Both have talked about rediscovering their love for the sport at UCLA after their experiences in elite. In a joint interview in 2018, they both revealed they were survivors of the sexual abuse from disgraced former U.S. gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

Being a part of a tight-knit team was exactly what both needed. Although winning the national championship during their sophomore season will always be a treasured memory, Kocian said it's the time with her teammates she's going to remember forever because of the joy it brought her.

"I love being there with my teammates and helping and supporting them in or out of the gym," she said. "That really makes me the happiest. I had a lot of time on the sideline this year, and it was those little moments with them, cheering each other on and being in the corner for someone's floor routine and fist bumps before routines. It's those memories I will remember most."

While their paths to Westwood were similar, their results at the NCAA level did diverge. Ross has established herself as one of the best college gymnasts ever with an astonishing 22 perfect-10 scores (tied with Oklahoma senior Maggie Nichols) throughout her career, four individual NCAA championships (one on each apparatus), two Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year awards and a school-record 24 All-American honors. She and Nichols were expected to battle for the all-around title at the NCAA championships.

Kocian competed in the all-around event as a freshman and finished seventh. After the 2017 season, she underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum she sustained prior to the 2016 Olympics. She dealt with shoulder pain and injuries throughout the rest of her career but managed to play a large part during the Bruins' national title run and earned first-team Pac-12 and All-American honors on bars during her junior year. She spent the summer determined to get her shoulder healthy and was ready to make her senior season her best yet.

She then reinjured the shoulder on the first day of practice. Waller and his coaching staff wanted to rest her as much as possible during the regular season so she would be able to compete one last time in the postseason. Kocian convinced them to let her compete sparingly -- and she says she is most thankful she was able to compete before it all ended.

Waller sent a group message to the team as soon as he got official word about the cancellation. He was upset for all the seniors on the team -- nine in total -- but he felt particularly saddened for Kocian, knowing how hard she had worked to end her career on her own terms.

"It was such a devastating blow when she reinjured it and the doctors told her they didn't know if she would ever be able to compete again," Waller said. "She did more physical therapy than anybody I've ever seen just trying to get an opportunity, and then she fought her way to get that opportunity, came in during our meet against BYU [in February] on bars and floor and was amazing.

"The first thing she said was, 'Had I known this was going to happen, I wouldn't have saved myself. I would have just done everything I could every day and competed as much as I could.' She did everything she could to get healthy, and she gave everything she had to the team in a very selfless way. Anything she could do to help the team be better, she did it. And when she couldn't compete, that meant emotionally or helping some of her younger teammates. This was already a tough year, and this is such a disappointing finish."

The news marked the official end of Waller's first year as head coach after years working as an assistant for the legendary Valorie Kondos Field. He appreciated how easy Ross, Kocian and the rest of the seniors made the transition.

Ross and Kocian are home now. After the school announced graduation would be held online and not in person, they decided there was nothing left to stick around for. They packed up all of their things in just a few hours.

"We could have stayed, but graduation was the last thing I was keeping hope for," Kocian said. "Once we heard that, it was kind of like, 'Well, we don't really have anything to do here, so there's no point for us to stay out here.' It's hard because we've really found out something new every single day -- first it was the senior meet, then it was Pac-12s, and then NCAAs, and then the rest of spring quarter being online, and now, just a few days ago, we heard about graduation. It's been a series of unfortunate, disappointing events."

Ross' parents recently bought a new house in Orange County, so she has been helping paint baseboards in the backyard. Kocian, back at her parents' home in Dallas, was trying to figure out a new hobby that could help fill the massive void left by gymnastics. The team has held a few video calls on Zoom since disbanding and said they feel as bonded as ever.

Even before the NCAA decided it would not be granting seniors in winter sports an extra year of eligibility, Ross and Kocian didn't think they would compete next season (although Ross did admit she might feel otherwise if the ruling was affirmative). They will still be at UCLA to finish their coursework, and Ross will be a student-coach with the team. Kocian is currently securing an internship at her orthopedist's office. After years of being a patient and undergoing various procedures, she hopes to eventually be an orthopedic physician's assistant. She will take her GRE exam next year and begin applying to programs. She said it's the perfect way to help people and stay involved with the sport.

But both are ready to move on.

"As of now, I look at myself as a retired gymnast," Ross said. "I had an amazing career, and I'm completely at peace and ready for the next chapter."