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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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Study shows which colleges produce most U.S. Olympians

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Want to be an Olympian? Go West, young athlete.

An OlympStats.com study found that Stanford, UCLA, USC and the University of California were the top colleges or universities attended by the 9,000-plus Americans to compete in Olympic history.

Olympic historians Bill Mallon and Hilary Evans spent the summer compiling the statistics.

They found that Stanford had at least 289 Olympians, followed by UCLA with 277, USC with 251 and Cal with 212.

Stanford and UCLA tied for the most Summer Olympians with 280.

The most Winter Olympians? The University of Minnesota with 93, more than two-thirds being hockey players.

Ivy League schools Harvard and Yale dominated the early editions of the Summer and Winter Olympics.

But USC topped the list at every Summer Games from 1928 through 1964 (tied with Cal in 1948). UCLA’s run went from 1968 through 2004. Stanford had the most in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

In Winter Olympics, the University of Utah topped the 2002 and 2006 teams, followed by Utah’s Westminster College in 2010 and 2014. Many skiers and snowboarders who train in Park City take classes at those two schools.

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Madison Kocian, competing with tear, glad she stuck with NCAA gymnastics

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Madison Kocian is the only member of the Final Five who has competed since the Rio Olympics. She’s the only one who didn’t turn professional.

And, get this, Kocian competed both in Rio and this past season as a UCLA freshman with an injured shoulder.

She said she suffered a small subluxation (partial dislocation) on an uneven bars release move at the Olympic Trials but managed through it to win Olympic team gold and bars silver medals. Kocian previously fractured her left tibia in February 2016.

Resting last fall didn’t help matters much. Kocian then competed with a torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff for UCLA in the spring semester, doing the all-around in 12 of 14 meets and winning half of them.

“That was the hardest thing going through the season,” Kocian said in a phone interview last month. “Nothing’s going to really heal the tear unless you do surgery. We were trying every other option.”

Kocian is taking the summer off (no surgery plans yet as of the interview). That means the P&G Championships in August will include no female gymnasts with Olympic experience for the first time since 2008.

Most women retire from elite international competition when they choose the NCAA route. Kocian has not yet.

“I know I have accomplished so much already,” said Kocian, who shared the 2015 World uneven bars title with three other gymnasts. “It’s just a matter of if I feel like I need to do anything else before closing that door. It’s still open. I could stop in college after next year and start training [elite], or finish my four years in college and continue my life.”

In this stretch last year, between the Olympic Trials and Rio Games, Kocian saw the last of her Olympic teammates turn pro (Laurie Hernandez).

Kocian said she was always set on competing as a Bruin, which meant keeping her amateur status for NCAA eligibility.

“I wanted to experience the college student-athlete life and be a part of that different world,” Kocian said. “The hardest part for me was after the Olympics, the media engagements and appearances. I couldn’t get paid for that.”

Kocian, a Texan, juggled her first quarter in Los Angeles while performing at seven stops of a 36-city USA Gymnastics post-Olympic tour and accepting an invitation to the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville.

She made the honor roll in the fall, winter and spring quarters.

“I didn’t know how I was going to make it through traveling and school at the same time,” she said. “I think maybe I should have come into school in January [rather than September].”

Kocian thought about it some more and continued her answer.

“Fall is preseason and where you really get to know your team and teammates,” before the season starts in January, she said. “I think if I would have went in January, starting school and gym season at the same time would have been even more tough.”

Kocian’s remaining UCLA goals are to earn as many All-America honors as possible (she has four; the UCLA career record is 19) and capture an NCAA team title. UCLA was fourth last season and last won in 2010.

“It was something different, a totally new experience that I was just getting used to,” she said. “I found my rhythm.”

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