Feb. 11, 2000
By Stuart Wolpert
Not many people were in Pauley Pavilion to watch the women's gymnastics team start its home season with another impressive victory. What you missed was inspirational.
My wife and I went with a small group, including three girls, ages seven to 10. After the girls saw the team last season, they began taking weekly gymnastics classes.
They adopted some of the team members as role models - especially the gifted and charismatic Heidi Moneymaker, UCLA's first NCAA champion on the uneven bars.
While basketball and football receive most of the media attention (and I'm a big fan of Steve Lavin's and the basketball team), attending the lower profile sporting events has its advantages. The tickets are inexpensive ($8 for adults, $6 for kids -- about the cost of a movie), you can sit anywhere you want (we were in the front row), and often you can interact with the athletes, who appreciate the fan support.
The gymnasts were great - graceful and resilient, strong and athletic, dedicated and wonderful competitors. It's a shame they are not better known. Why are athletes with criminal records and outrageous behavior glorified more than those who quietly perfect their skills and reach their potential?
Why do we not know the names of Heidi Moneymaker, a history major who was Team USA's top competitor at the World University Games and was magnificent in this meet, and her teammates: Lena Degteva (a first-team All-American for three consecutive years), Mohini Bhardwaj (also a first-team All-American), Stephanie Johnson (an Academic All-American), Amy Young (an Academic All-American), the remarkably talented and dynamic Onnie Willis (a captivating freshman who looks like she will become a superstar), Lindsey Dong (an Academic All-American), Malia Jones, Kristin Parker, Carly Raab, Alison Stoner, Doni Thompson and Valerie Velasco? And Valorie Kondos, the coach who provides inspired leadership for the team and is one of the great choreographers in gymnastics?
When the meet was over, Lena Degteva took a microphone and delivered an articulate, heartfelt speech, in which she warmly thanked the team's fans and supporters. She was thanking us! The young girls I was with walked down onto the floor of Pauley, where the victorious gymnasts were still standing.
The girls asked a few of the gymnasts to sign autographs and pose for pictures. At another meet this season - not this one - all of the gymnasts stayed afterwards to sign autographs and posters for the fans. But no matter. Although not scheduled to sign autographs, each gymnast was warm, friendly and gracious.
Then we saw Heidi Moneymaker on the other side of the floor, speaking with a friend. Did we dare approach and interrupt this marvelous athlete? The girls were intimidated. They were just cheering for her, and now here she was. Let's ask, the worst she would do is tell us she was busy.
Heidi was unbelievable. She introduced us to her friend, an Olympic gymnast, and she signed autographs, smiled, hugged the girls and posed for pictures, and had a lengthy conversation with her shy admirers. Those pictures will be framed and prominently displayed for years.
"She's so nice!" one of the girls said as we left. "Can we come back again next week?" said another.
The next meet in Pauley is Sunday, Feb. 20 at 2 p.m.
Did I mention the team has been ranked number one in the country this year?
Stuart Wolpert, public information representative for UCLA's College of Letters and Science, wrote this piece for the publication "UCLA Today."