Like a long flight cut short by an emergency landing, this season was brief, yet full of turbulence for all collegiate sports. The Cal men’s gymnastics season was no exception. Amid a smooth climb after a bit bumpy takeoff, the COVID-19 emergency brought an abrupt landing to the Bears’ season.
The first few meets of 2020 were a challenge for the team. In the Cal Benefit Cup and a subsequent meet against Air Force and Stanford, the blue and gold started rather low, scoring in the 380s, which were some of the lowest scores in the past few seasons. But in its third meet of the season, the Stanford Open, Cal took a big leap and notched a 400.700, the first mark above 400 on the season.
Cal head coach J.T. Okada sees this process as normal and necessary for finding the right track to survive the long season.
“In the first few meets, we have to re-establish new people, figure out our own process, things like the type of energy and mindset,” Okada said.
In the two meets in February, the Bears showed a gradual climb despite some up and down performances. At the Pac-12 Invitational, Cal broke a school record on vault in for the second consecutive week. In the next ASU Invite, a new school record was set on parallel bars. Despite those vast improvements, there remained some issues to tackle, as both meets saw stagnant scores in the low 60s on high bar and declining scoring trends in floor performances.
Amid a busy season with meets every weekend, a couple of weeks off in mid-February was exactly what the team needed, giving them a chance to recover and reflect.
Fresh from the break, Bears finally settled and began to cruise at a higher altitude. Setting the school record on vault again, the Stanford International Collegiate Open was a fruitful meet with senior Asad Jooma seizing the school high on vault and sophomore Caleb Rickard named Mountain Pacific Sports Federation gymnast of the week for his career bests on vault and floor. The senior day meet with Navy was the Bears’ last performance in Berkeley but it has now become the last meet of the season and, for some seniors, the last of their career. Although Cal finished behind Navy, it saw some of the best performances of the season and said goodbye to the familiar Haas Pavilion with a season high of 403.11.
With the best score from the last meet and development over the season, blue and gold were certainly heading in the right direction to compete at the NCAA Championships. Although there is a disappointment in not being able to proceed, Coach Okada saw improvement throughout the season.
“Consistency improved, and how we mentally approach all the meet got so much better from the first meet we had,” Okada said. “By treating competitions not so differently from practices, towards the end of the season we were really starting to perform exactly as we did in practice, or even better.”
Experienced seniors and new freshmen talents were particularly important building blocks for Cal. Seniors Kyte Crigger and Jonathan Wang, both competing in more than five events or all-around in most of the competitions, contributed to building solid team scores. Freshmen established their spots on the team by putting on stellar performances in many of the meets. While Kyle Shuttle showed steady 14.00 marks on vault in six of seven meets, Will Lavanakul tied the team’s season high score of 13.700 on pommel horse. Noah Sano showed great improvement in the senior day meet against Navy, breaking season-highs on two events, pommel horse and parallel bars.
This season was full of turbulence beyond the panic surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier in the school year, UC Berkeley experienced a power outage for a few weeks and the team lost access to the gym each time.
“I had some guys asking me ‘please, I just want to get back to the gym,'” Okada said. “With all the adversities we had this year, I have been kept reminded about how much they love gymnastics and enjoy being around the teammates in the gym.”
Despite the cancellation of all the competitions for the rest of the season following a statewide shelter-in-place order, the Bears are trying whatever they can to maintain their skill level. Though they can no longer meet in person at the gym for training as they used to, individual conditioning and Zoom meetings where they discuss gymnastics techniques became the new practice routine while quarantining.
Even in this uncertainty, Cal’s eyes are on next season.
“I want to re-energize the team with new members,” Okada said. “That makes the team more competitive because you have to beat more guys to earn the spot to compete in certain events.”
Adding new crew members, Cal is already preparing for takeoff next season.
Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].