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

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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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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”