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Janelle McDonald hopes to rebuild UCLA gymnastics with passion, positivity

Janelle McDonald, UCLA’s new gymnastics coach, says she will put the interest of student-athletes first when rebuilding a program that has not qualified for the NCAA meet the last two years.
(Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)

Janelle McDonald’s to-do list is growing faster than her list of Twitter followers.

Such is life for the new UCLA gymnastics coach.

Less than 24 hours after her hire was announced Monday, McDonald began a media gauntlet. The leader of the most popular college gymnastics program in the country sat in person for interviews with The Times and UCLA’s in-house magazine Tuesday and held virtual court via Zoom. Her busy schedule for the rest of the week includes flying to Phoenix for an NCAA gymnastics convention, then stopping at the U.S. Development Program national championships in Mesa, Ariz., for recruiting, returning to the Bay Area to tie up loose ends and then coming back to L.A. to begin a housing hunt.

Amid the chaos, McDonald found the most joy during the brief moments she shared with her future athletes. The gymnasts who welcomed her Monday afternoon and brightened up her hectic schedule during an 8 a.m. practice Tuesday are her top priority.

“My first step is to get to know the student-athletes really well,” McDonald said. “I want to create a really inclusive environment where everybody feels like somebody, and they know they have a voice here and can be a part of building the culture of the team.”

UCLA’s dominance in the gymnastics world is teetering after the Bruins missed the NCAA championships in back-to-back years. McDonald will be tasked with steering the program back on the championship path. The four-year California assistant has experience in that, helping the Golden Bears set multiple program records, win their first NCAA individual championship — Maya Bordas on uneven bars in 2021 — and claim their first Pac-12 Conference championship, sharing the regular-season crown in 2022.

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UCLA has named Janelle McDonald its new gymnastics coach. McDonald takes over for Chris Waller, who resigned last month.

“[I] cannot think of a single soul more suited for this role!!” Cal gymnast Milan Clausi wrote on Twitter after UCLA announced the hire.

Breaking the news to her Cal team was “one of the hardest conversations of my life,” McDonald said. But the gymnasts supported the next steps of her coaching career, even if it meant moving to a conference rival.

“Change is hard, but it’s also exciting,” McDonald said. “I told them that in life, sometimes you come to a crossroads where you have to make difficult decisions in order to chase your dreams and grow. That’s kind of where I’m at right now.”

McDonald’s coaching dream began in high school when she started coaching gymnastics as an excuse to get into the gym more after family circumstances prevented her from continuing with the sport herself. She interned with the women’s gymnastics program while going to school at Arizona State, where she intended to major in early childhood education.

Her mother, sister and two best friends are elementary and middle school teachers, so she believed teaching would be a fitting career path. When she realized that having to student-teach to fulfill a requirement for her degree would compromise her ability to coach gymnastics, she stuck with her love for the sport.

The Bruins are used to having a leader with a limited gymnastics background. Longtime head coach Valorie Kondos Field famously said she didn’t even know how to do a cartwheel. But the former professional ballerina led UCLA to seven NCAA championships and built the gymnastics team into one of the university’s most popular programs.

“Looking at people like Miss Val, it really inspired me to think, you know what, to be a great coach and be a great leader, you don’t necessarily have to have walked in those shoes yourself,” said McDonald, whose Twitter profile boasted nearly 1,200 followers as of Tuesday afternoon, more than double the roughly 550 followers she had before being named UCLA head coach.

Kondos Field still casts a long shadow in Westwood, where the competition floor bears her name. The joyful floor routines she choreographed helped the Bruins almost turn breaking the internet into an annual tradition. Casual fans looked at UCLA, and college gymnastics in general, as a haven for gymnasts who suffered years of harsh, even abusive coaching at their top clubs.

The UCLA reputation came under fire last year when former coach Chris Waller, who resigned last month, was criticized by some gymnasts for how he and his staff handled a preseason incident when a former teammate allegedly used racist language. Fans on social media who were calling for Waller’s dismissal last season praised UCLA’s decision to hire McDonald, who assured she wants to create a welcoming environment for her gymnasts.

“[Because] it’s a sport where we’re striving for perfection all the time, there’s a sense sometimes that nothing is ever good enough and that can become very heavy for the athletes and the coaches if you can’t shift your mindset to redefine what success looks like on that day or on that turn or in that moment,” McDonald said. “What I try to bring is just shifting the mindset [that] mistakes are part of learning. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not trying to grow. … It changes the perception of how an athlete trains. It makes it more positive and you’re not going to be fearful of making mistakes because you know that’s part of the process.”

McDonald, who specializes in bars and helped Cal tie the best bars score in NCAA history in 2021, hasn’t solidified her coaching staff but said she is casting a large net for assistants. Whether they come from a college or club coaching background or are UCLA alumni, it’s about “the right fit for the person,” McDonald said. But as someone with no previous ties to the program, she added “there’s a lot about the Bruin bubble that I have to learn still.”

Just add that research to her growing list of things to do.


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