Cal’s journey to Nationals was unlike any other. In spite of fewer training hours, outdoor weight practices, empty arenas and other new restrictions as a result of the pandemic, the Bears put on their best performances in program history.
No one could have embodied Cal’s tenacity more than senior Emi Watterson. The Australia native, who earned the fourth perfect score in program history last month, faltered as Cal’s anchor on bars, earning a 9.2125. Then, despite Watterson’s understandable disappointment, she rallied past the personal low and showed up for her team on beam. Watterson would again anchor the Bears, this time earning a 9.9125, to lead the Bears to a 49.375, their highest event score of the night.
“The sign of a true teammate and a true competitor is being able to stay in the moment,” co-head coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell said. “She did a fantastic job being able to finish our rotation on beam in the anchor position. She went up and rocked one of her best beam routines of her life in that pressure-cooker moment, being that it was the last routine of our meet.”
In spite of their fourth-quarter rally, the Bears still finished in third place, just 0.500 points shy of a qualifying spot. And although Cal was not one of the four teams to advance to the finals, it did not leave the NCAA Championships empty-handed. Junior Maya Bordas became the first National Champion in program history, splitting the individual title on uneven bars with Utah’s standout sophomore Maile O’Keefe. Cal also took home nine All-American awards, a program record, which were earned by six gymnasts: senior Kyana George, senior Alma Kuc, sophomore Nevaeh DeSouza, freshman Andi Li, Watterson and Bordas.
The Bears’ record-breaking night began with COVID-chaos. Minutes before the competition began, Cal and its fans were forced to exit the arena due to a COVID-related concern.
“It was crazy, to be honest with you. We basically had about 20 minutes to get out on the floor with our entire team and get everything warmed up,” said co-head coach Justin Howell. “But our team is prepared for scenarios like this.”
As the afternoon finally got underway for Cal, Bordas rose to the occasion on the uneven bars. The blue and gold sat squarely in third place before beginning bars and needed to score big in order to keep the finals dreams alive. No stranger to pressure, Bordas, who earned first-team all-conference honors in the event, delivered a 9.95. It was just .025 points short of her career high.
Crandall-Howell acknowledged the feat and thought it was Bordas’s best dismount yet.
“I think that was one of the best bar routines Maya has ever done,” Crandall-Howell said. “Something she’s been working really hard with is body posture on her landing and dismount. That was by far the best dismount she’s ever done.”
With another record-breaking performance in the books, Cal waves an emotional goodbye to the rollercoaster that was this past season.
“There were some tears,” Howell said. “We knew they were upset that they weren’t competing in the final night because that’s been their goal all season. I said, ‘I hope that when you walk out of here you can turn those tears into tears of joy.’”
While Cal has not officially confirmed the return of any seniors, individual athletes, including George, have the option to return. Bordas and the rest of Cal’s underclassmen plan to come back for more.
Aiko Sudijono covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].