‘It felt like I had something to prove’: 7 Bears rise to occasion at NCAA championships

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Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff

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While the Bears didn’t strike gold at the last weekend’s NCAA men’s gymnastics championships, several gymnasts shined especially bright after hitting the routines they had spent the season polishing.

Cal completed the championships on Day One with its third-highest score of the season, a 394.824. This placed the Bears fifth among the overall six teams that competed in the qualifying round. As predicted, it was Stanford, Nebraska and Illinois who made the cut and competed against the top three other teams from the second session — Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State. In the end, the Cardinal flew off with the golden trophy after scoring a 423.628.

While the Bears were bested in competition, the team finally proved it could stand strong — Cal gymnasts hit 28 of their 30 routines.

“Being the underdog is always an exciting feeling because no one really expects you to come up so we put out a great performance,” said Cal freshman Landon Wu. “We’re all really satisfied with what we were able to accomplish.”

The blue and gold had hoped to leave the NCAAs ranked higher than the No. 9 they entered the championships as, but with all the other teams also on their A-game, the Bears got stuck in the mud and didn’t budge rankings. However, Cal still mined some new achievements. Seven of its gymnasts qualified for the finals, a significant improvement compared to the three that qualified in 2021. The Bears also improved upon their previous championship score by almost 3 points.

Perhaps the most impressive of the blue and gold was sophomore Noah Newfeld, who has been a rising star since coming to Cal. Newfeld placed 11th in the all-around finals with a total of 78.798 points, a score that may have been high enough to qualify him for the USA Gymnastics Championships in August.

“Last year — winning Rookie of the Year — it felt like I had something to prove still,” Newfeld said. “This year, I felt like I showed everybody that I do deserve to be counted as one of the top guys, and I hope to improve on that as well.”

Newfeld stuck his landings in all 12 of the routines he performed, including a difficult one on parallel bars that he had been struggling with throughout the season. During his second day of competition, Newfeld both hit a skill he wasn’t constantly performing correctly, which required him to go from one move immediately into a handstand, as well as his double front dismount.

While Newfeld was excited to enter the finals as an individual, he hopes his fellow gymnasts will join him next year so Cal can compete as one of the top six teams in the NCAA finals.

“We all utilize a strategy of hitting cleaner sets but not as hard as everyone else is,” Newfeld said. “If we really want to make a campaign for being one of the top teams, we need to be grinding out over the summer and putting in a lot of these harder, riskier routines in hopes of chasing that top-team status.”

According to Cal head coach J.T. Okada, summer is an important transition period for gymnasts. It can be an opportunity for them to either fall behind or start the preseason off as a competitor to be reckoned with.

Fans should be excited to see how Wu and Tyler Shimizu are looking at the beginning of next season, as both qualified and competed in the championship finals their first year as collegiate gymnasts. Shimizu scored a 12.966 on pommel horse, which landed him at 21st place behind junior Will Lavanakul, who tied for ninth with a 13.366 on the event. Wu was the only Bear to compete on rings, where he placed 43rd with 12.800 points.

“I was slightly nervous, but for the most part, I was really excited because this was the last meet of the year so it was all or nothing,” Wu said. “I had nothing to lose — I just had to do my best.”

Seniors Yu-Chen Lee and Caleb Rickard, as well as sophomore Collin Cunane, also competed in the finals on parallel bars, vault and floor, respectively.

While the blue and gold are losing heavy hitters Rickard and Kyle Abe after they both graduate this spring, the team also has a lot to look forward to next season. Previously, the majority of Cal was sophomores. As those gymnasts are moving into their junior year and now have a full season under their belts, the team will be more experienced and thus likely stronger in 2023.

The Bears ended the season solidly ranked ninth out of the nation’s 13 collegiate teams, but if they put in the work this summer, they could surprise the men’s gymnastics world and start next January off with a roar.

Cal is motivated, and many of the gymnasts are already planning a triumphant return, including Newfeld: “Watch out for us 2023.”

Emily Hom covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].