With an all-star lineup filled with Olympians, World Championship members and national team members, the expectations for the 2001 UCLA Gymnastics team were sky-high. After all, the Bruins were the defending NCAA Champions and had what was generally considered the most talented team in the history of collegiate gymnastics.
But it took more than just talent for the Bruins to reach the top of the podium at the NCAA Championships - a strong team commitment, team chemistry, depth, resiliency and a lot of heart brought UCLA its second consecutive national title.
The Bruins' quest to repeat started off strongly after a 24-for-24 performance during the preliminary session. UCLA placed first in the afternoon session with a score of 197.625 to advance to the Super Six. Sophomore Onnie Willis ended the afternoon as the all-around co-leader and saw her score stand during the evening session, making her UCLA's first-ever NCAA all-around champion. Mohini Bhardwaj and Yvonne Tousek tied for third place.
"I think it's amazing, and I'm very excited about tying for first," Willis said after the competition. "My goal was to place in the Top 5 in the all-around. I am very honored to be UCLA's first all-around champion."
On top of Willis' all-around victory, which she shared with 2000 U.S. Olympian Elise Ray, the Bruin sophomore was one of just two athletes to earn All-America honors on all four events and the all-around. Willis led a contingent of eight Bruins to a school-record 20 All-America honors.
With day one of the Championships over with, the Bruins went into the team finals wearing shirts that read "Win With Our Hearts", and they proceeded to do just that.
The Bruins showed their heart early in the competition. During the first rotation, a fall from the first competitor put the pressure on early, but the team responded with three consecutive scores of 9.9+ to end the rotation with a .275 lead over second-place Georgia.
The Bruins increased their lead on vault, totaling 49.45 thanks to six 9.8+ scores and 9.9+ scores from Tousek (9.9), Kristin Parker (career-high 9.95) and Bhardwaj (9.9). UCLA's vault score increased the Bruin lead to .35 over Georgia and Michigan.
The Bruins lost their firm grip on the lead on the uneven bars when two of their final three competitors made costly errors that narrowed the lead to just one-tenth of a point heading into the final rotation on the dreaded balance beam.
As home team Georgia scored a 49.5 on vault, thanks to a 9.975 from Suzanne Sears and a 9.95 from Kristi Lichey, the Bruins matched them score for score. In the leadoff position, Doni Thompson put the winning wheels in motion by starting the set with a career-high 9.9. A fall from UCLA's second competitor put the pressure on, but the Bruins responded and almost fed off the pressure.
"Every one of them looked me in the eye and said they wanted it," said Bruin head coach Valorie Kondos Field. "So I said, 'Go get it.'"
Tousek followed with a career-high 9.95, Willis tied her career-high with a 9.9, and Kristen Maloney scored a 9.925 to set the stage for Bhardwaj. In familiar territory after having clinched a dual meet win against Georgia at home, Bhardwaj responded with a 9.9, well above the 9.75 she needed to move ahead of Georgia. The Bruins finished with a beam total of 49.575, the second-highest beam mark in school history, and an overall team total of 197.575, .175 ahead of Georgia.
UCLA capped its successful season with two more titles during the event finals. Tousek and Willis placed 1-2 on bars, and Bhardwaj and Thompson also placed in the Top 6. On floor, Bhardwaj won her second individual title, edging second-place Jamie Dantzscher. Willis placed fifth. On beam, Maloney placed third, and Parker was fourth on vault.
Bhardwaj swept the post-season awards, winning AAI American Award for the nation's top all-around senior, and the Honda Award for the nation's top gymnast.
In addition, Kondos Field was selected the National Head Coach of the Year for the fourth time in six years.