‘Dear Pressure, I miss you’: A recap of Cal women’s gymnastics season

Lisi Ludwig/Staff

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During a weekly Thursday team Zoom meeting, Cal women’s co-head gymnastics coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell asked the team to contemplate the idea of pressure, specifically, how pressure has played a role in their lives as student-athletes.

“The task that we gave them last week was to write a letter to pressure. What would you say, what has pressure taught you?” Crandall-Howell explained. “One of the girls’ responses that jumped off of the page was, ‘Dear Pressure, I miss you.’”

The pressure of landing a strong finish to the record-breaking 2020 season has been lifted, but this void of pressure is unwelcome for the gymnasts, who have spent the majority of their lives seeking the uncomfortable.

“We talk to them all the time about pressure being a privilege,” Crandall-Howell said.

Months ago, when COVID-19 was still making its way across the globe, the Bears’ coaching staff were training their gymnasts to reach their peak performance for the end of the 2020 season. They had been performing under immense pressure, as each strong showing was met with soaring expectations for the ending meets of the season.

“Everybody was training phenomenally well,” Crandall-Howell said.

Despite the immense let-down, the Bears still have much to celebrate.

Of 10 meets, the Bears earned scores of 197 or higher in five of them. Cal was ranked No. 9 nationally, and the Bears broke the top-15 ranking in every event. At the season’s end, the Bears were bestowed with eight all-conference honors, a school record.

They tied their program record on bars with a 49.575, and as a team scored above a 49 in eight of the 10 meets in that event. Emi Watterson notably earned a near perfect 9.975, the highest bars score in school history.

The Bears finished ranked No. 13 nationally on floor, a leap from their No. 22 placement at the end of the 2019 season.

Ranked No. 6 nationally, vault proved to be Cal’s strongest weapon during the 2020 season. Junior Kyana George debuted with a career high of 9.925 in that event, emerging as an extremely consistent all-arounder. Three gymnasts showcased Yurchenko 1.5s, and both Milan Clausi and Rachael Mastrangelo scored 9.95s.

On the balance beam, the Bears scored above 49 in seven of the 10 meets. Watterson debuted on the beam, scoring an impressive 9.90 career-high.

Perhaps the most impressive performance was from freshman Nevaeh DeSouza, who exploded into her collegiate career by leading Cal in points, and was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

Sophomore Grace Quinn fully returned to the competition floor for the first time since 2015, and even competed once as an all-arounder. Sophomore Maya Bordas competed as an all-arounder and had a first-place finish.

Never has their adaptability been more evident than in the moments in which the team learned their season would come to a premature end.

“We brought the girls in and had a team meeting,” Crandall-Howell said of breaking the news to the team. “We told them how proud we were of them for the way that they had prepared themselves for the season.”

“They cried. There were tears. None of the tears were from a place of anger. They hugged each other, they all hugged the seniors.”

But quickly, the grief gave way to determined resolve.

“Here these kids have just gotten this major blow, and the way that they responded was ‘Okay, what am I going to do from here?’” Crandall-Howell said. “We as a coaching staff have been inspired by them.”

With gyms closed for the foreseeable future, gymnasts will turn back to the basics. Much of the conditioning done for gymnastics can be done through body weight exercises, for example handstand holds, presses and pullups. They can also do single-leg exercises to maintain their stabilizing and balance skills. The girls have also set up a shared Dropbox folder, in which they post videos of their own workouts from around the country.

In the sport of gymnastics, this is uncharted territory. Never have so many athletes taken such a long break from working on their skills within a gym.

“There’s going to be a big transition time for everyone in the country and the world, for what it will be like when we go back to being able to get in a gym,” Crandall-Howell said.

The mantra “pressure is a privilege” rings true for athletes of all calibers. The joy of training alongside teammates will never again go unnoticed.

Cal was on track to do big things with the end of their season. In the event that sports are able to resume as normal next season, the gymnasts will undoubtedly be bursting with desire to prove themselves — even if it has been months since their feet have grazed the surface of a balance beam, or their hands have gripped the uneven bar.

2021 will bring a much-welcomed pressure.

Sarah Siegel covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].