Emily Lee’s excellence in handling pressure helps UCLA gymnastics flourish

UCLA sophomore Emily Lee is the gymnastics version of a baseball hitter.

When he’s the Bruins’ first competitor in one of the four events, his job is to set the tone. To be calm, so his teammates will feel confident. To inspire them, so they will follow his example and maybe even surpass it.

Not everyone has the steady nerves needed to handle that role, but Lee knocked the No. 4-ranked Bruins out of the park this season, posting eight scores of 9.9 or better in the top spot. She earned six of those scores on the dangerous balance beam, a make-or-break event.

“When you’re at the front, you need a good routine. You don’t have to make the rest of the lineup nervous. Someone who is really strong. I can do that,” said the Los Gatos native. “But the pressure on the back end, if somebody messes up at the beginning, you have that pressure of, ‘Oh my God, I can’t mess up.'”

“I never have that pressure. It’s nice You finish earlier and then you encourage the rest of the team. I will go where my team needs me.”

But moving forward also requires sacrifice that Lee willingly makes.

Judges in subjective sports such as gymnastics and figure skating tend to hold back on awarding high scores to early competitors, leaving room for best scores to those who compete later. It’s not fair, but gymnastics is a recognized part of life.

Lee has been able to shake that off in the name of getting her team off to a strong start, as she posted a 9.90 on the balance beam Thursday in the NCAA regional semifinals at lively Pauley Pavilion. Her teammates were outscored by 9.80 points on the floor exercise and while her score didn’t count, it was part of an impressive postseason effort. The Bruins finished the four-team field on Thursday with 198.275 points, pushing them into Saturday’s regional final against Utah, Washington and Missouri. The top two teams on Saturday will advance to the national finals in Fort Worth.

Emily Lee competes on vault for UCLA gymnastics at the NCAA Los Angeles Regional.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“Your job is to box the judges. If you have a really good routine you might score a little lower, but your teammates’ scores will improve because of you. That’s my job,” said Lee, who scored a 9.85 on the second Bruin vault and a 9.80 on the second Bruin uneven bars Thursday. “Yes, I might give up a 10, but then maybe my teammate will get a 10. And that’s like my 10 too. Set them up for success.”

Lee’s success this season has been remarkable, a well-deserved reward for his painful recovery from a ruptured left Achilles tendon suffered at the 2021 pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympic trials.

Lee lived with aches and pains in his leg for a while, but hoped to overcome the discomfort and fulfill his dream of competing in trials. He almost made it to the end: he was the last performer in the final act, in the floor exercise, when he fell to the floor at the end of a sudden fall pass.

First, he cried. It took a few minutes for his mind to accept what his body was telling him.

“Once I got up I knew. Yes, it’s gone. That’s it. There’s not much hope left,” said Lee, a three-time member of the US national team. “That night I calmed down. It was going to happen eventually. It’s over now. I can start rehab.

“I was luckier than most. I got to go to the Olympic Trials and experience an opportunity that almost no one gets. I wouldn’t take it back. If I had to do it over again, I would. I felt very lucky.”

He rehabilitated himself during his freshman year, immersing himself in his difficult classes as a physiological science major, but helping out with practices and some meetings.

“I think he’s always had that hard-working mentality, so I knew he could come back,” Emma Malabuyo said. “But to see him grow this season, especially after the injury, and not just do one event, he’s doing everything. That really surprised me, and I think that also inspires a lot of people.”

Lee’s training took a hit when he started to fall again, bringing back thoughts of his injury. But his fears quickly disappeared.

“Meet by meet her confidence has just blossomed, and it’s been amazing to watch her confidence grow and her love for gymnastics and our team grow through that process,” coach Janelle McDonald said. “He’s absolutely one of the strongest competitors on our team, and he can help us reach endless goals as far as we can achieve as a team.”

After missing the NCAA tournament by a mere .025 last season, the Bruins adopted the phrase “No Regrets” as their mantra this week. They had no reason to doubt Thursday, thanks to strong efforts from Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles — who posted an all-around score of 39.750 — freshman Selena Harris’ team-best 9.975 and Brooklyn Moors’ return from injury. , who competed in vault and floor exercise. The Bruins are back in contention for a national title, sweetening the comeback after last season’s strain that led to the resignation of then-coach Chris Waller.

UCLA's Emily Lee competes in the meet against Oregon State on January 29th.

UCLA’s Emily Lee competes in the meet against Oregon State on January 29th.

(Kyusung Gong/Associated Press)

Controversy over how Waller and his staff handled a preseason incident involving racist language used by a former UCLA gymnast divided the team. McDonald has helped them heal, bring them back together and bring out the best in a talented group. That’s why Lee said a few days ago that this season would be considered a win whether it happens in the regionals or beyond.

“It has already been successful in many ways. I mean, last year we come from a broken culture. We were coming in without trust, there was nothing that tied us together,” Lee said. “Compared to this year, we’re totally connected. We want to win and we’re going to do everything we can to help each other succeed in and out of the gym.”

The tone he sets as a former batsman goes a long way towards making that happen.

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