Madison Kocian, Kyla Ross reflect on early end to UCLA senior seasons

Madison Kocian, Kyla Ross
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Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross reached the top of the highest levels of gymnastics. They are the only women to earn Olympic, world and NCAA titles. What the UCLA roommates likely will not get, though, is a proper competition sendoff.

Kocian, a 2016 Olympian, and Ross, a 2012 Olympian, were among the scores of NCAA athletes whose seasons were cut short two weeks ago due to the coronavirus pandemic halting global sports. It all happened days before what would have been UCLA’s Senior Day meet, where Kocian, Ross and seven other Bruins were to be honored at Pauley Pavilion.

“I would definitely say it was upsetting, obviously,” Kocian, who came back from a fractured tibia to earn two Rio Olympic medals and came back from injuries all four years at UCLA, said by phone Monday. “At the same time, I’m really fortunate that my shoulder and the medical staff and everyone helped to get me back to one piece so that I was able to compete in the regular season. So I definitely don’t have any regrets there.

“It was just hard for, I’m sure, all the athletes around the country. Not just in gymnastics.”

Ross, the rare athlete to compete collegiately seven years after becoming an Olympian, said her first reaction was feeling robbed of the last moment at home in front of friends, plus family flying in from Hawaii.

“Definitely hard to cope with, I think for all the seniors knowing that we didn’t get that special ending,” said Ross, a two-time world all-around medalist. “We didn’t get to fight for another national championship, but at the end of the day, I think everyone’s pretty understanding of why it had to end like this and helping protect and not spread the virus anymore.”

Kocian, the uneven bars silver medalist on the U.S.’ Rio Olympic champion team, said there was a stretch two weeks ago where each day brought more unfortunate news.

It began on a return trip from a taping of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where the Bruins supported one of their own, show guest Nia Dennis, who had become an internet sensation with a Beyoncé-themed floor exercise routine. Ross was driving. That’s when they learned classes would shift online.

“Then, the next thing we saw at the end of the email was that all events and activities on campus that were more than 100 people would be without fans,” Kocian said. “We were all just wondering how that was going to work.”

The next day, the team learned that weekend’s Senior Day opponent, Bridgeport, would not be traveling to Westwood.

“So then we were like, we’ll just do an intrasquad thing,” to honor the team’s nine seniors, Kocian said. “Then the day after that, we were in the gym, and I think everyone’s head was just really scattered. We didn’t really know what was going on. [Senior Associate Athletic Director] Christina Rivera came in, and she told us that Pac-12 was canceling all the events. So that meant we wouldn’t have anything in Pauley [Pavilion] for the seniors. No senior meet. No intrasquad or anything. I think everyone’s head just kind of fell from there. We were just like really upset. We just didn’t really know what that meant going forward.”

NCAA postseason competition, including the national championships in mid-April, were also canceled. Kocian was proud to compete on bars and floor in the team’s last competition on March 8.

“I know it’s going to take some time trying to process that I’m actually done right now with gymnastics,” Kocian said, “but I’m definitely satisfied with how it ended.”

Ross has no regrets. She plans to become a volunteer assistant coach next season while finishing her degree in molecular, cell and developmental biology.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to in gymnastics,” she said.

Gymnasts’ families had already booked travel for Senior Day when it was canceled. So the Bruins and their parents got together in person one last time, before area gatherings were further limited, to watch the senior tribute put together by team videographer Deanna Hong.

“It was really cool to see how we’ve grown since freshman year and be able to celebrate with our teammates,” Kocian said of the outing at Rocco’s Tavern in Westwood.

Kocian is often asked why she appeared more emotional after UCLA’s comeback to win the 2018 NCAA team title than at the Olympics.

“I think it’s because when you train and you live with your teammates, go to classes with them, you literally spend the whole day with them for the whole year. It’s just the bond and the connection that we make throughout the whole year is very special,” she said.

UCLA had winter quarter finals the week after everything was canceled. Kocian’s first exam was the day she learned the Senior Day meet was off.

“I couldn’t think straight for a while, and I know the rest of my apartment was the same,” she said. “Eventually, after we had the senior celebration, I was like, I worked too hard this quarter to throw my grades away now. I tried to keep that in mind and tried to remind myself everyone around the world is going through something, so it’s not just me.”

She was named the Pac-12 Gymnastics Scholar-Athlete of the Year last Thursday.

Next for Kocian: preparing to apply to physician assistant school next year. She’s heard that NCAA spring sports athletes could receive an additional year of eligibility. It’s also possible for winter athletes like gymnasts. If that happens, Kocian is not ruling out considering coming back, given she will be in the area anyway finishing up science classes.

“Just because I’ve gone through an injury every single year, I feel like this is probably going to be the end of it,” she said. “I mean, you never really know what’s in the future, but I’m also really excited about going into the medical field, going into PA school, just something different, something that’s next for me in life.”

Ross, too, said she would consider it if offered 2021 eligibility. But she also has other plans, including a medical internship this summer.

“Looking back, the way it all ended, it’s kind of teaching people and reminding people to focus on the process and the journey and not necessarily the ending point or the accomplishment,” she said.

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new up-tempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. women’s basketball team won its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headlined a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, included neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team had nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 60 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The U.S. beat China in the final, while host Australia took bronze to send 41-year-old Lauren Jackson into retirement.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), wasn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia 95, Canada 65 Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA 83, China 61 Gold-Medal Game