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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