Nia Dennis, UCLA gymnastics bring #BlackExcellence to NCAA championships

Nia Dennis, UCLA gymnastics bring #BlackExcellence to NCAA championships

Nia Dennis is sorry she lied, but she wanted to keep this a secret.

When asked of possibly upgrading her vault last week for the NCAA championships, the senior said she was going to stand pat on a simple full-twisting Yurchenko. Yet on Friday in Fort Worth, there Dennis was pulling off two full twists in the air after her round off-back handspring entry.

She hadn’t done the skill, which is among the hardest vaults in college gymnastics, in six years when she was an elite gymnast training for the Olympics. If this was going to be the end of her gymnastics career, she wanted it to be perfect.

It was.

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“To compete that one last time my senior year, I feel great,” said Dennis, who scored a modest 9.7875 after practicing only a handful of times. “I was really happy I could bring it back one last time.”

The star senior was one of three UCLA gymnasts competing in nationals as individuals on Friday. This is the first time since 2014 that UCLA hasn’t claimed an individual national title. Freshman Chae Campbell, who competed in the all-around, had UCLA’s best individual finish with a career high-tying 9.925 on beam, which tied for fifth. Junior Margzetta Frazier scored a 9.875 on bars.

Campbell shined on floor during the first rotation with a 9.9375 that ranked seventh overall, but had a scary warmup on vault, where she attempted an ungraded 1 1/2-twisting vault. The Carrollton, Texas, native competing in her home state hyperextended her knee on a landing.

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As she walked off the mat gingerly, Campbell wasn’t sure if she could finish the meet. Then she saw all her friends and family in the stands. She scaled back to a full twist and finished with a 39.55 in the all-around despite pain from her knee that required a complicated tape job from the team trainer.

UCLA coach Chris Waller called it “really a breakout day for her.” It was yet another example of the freshman’s bright future.

“That’s that resilience, baby,” Dennis said. “I’ve seen it from way back in preseason. … That fighter’s spirit was in her.”

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Campbell said last week that she looked at Dennis as a “big sister” who helped guide her through an unconventional freshman season. She wouldn’t have had as successful of a year — which included Pac-12 newcomer/freshman of the year and three postseason All-American awards — without Dennis teaching her “what it means to be a true Bruin.”

Dennis is beloved among her teammates for her leadership and known internationally for floor routines that have gone viral. She’s done magazine cover shoots and dozens of TV interviews over the last two years, a dramatic shift from the quiet gymnast who arrived in Westwood in 2018.

Even as a club gymnast at Columbus, Ohio’s Buckeye Gymnastics, Dennis was shy, said Alabama gymnast Makarri Doggette, a long-time club teammate. But Doggette, who is so close to her best friend that they have matching tattoos, saw another side of Dennis. She was goofy and fun in the gym and always dispensed positive energy.

Doggette knew it would only be a matter of time until everyone got to meet the version of Dennis she knew.

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“To see her branch out and be the person that she is just made me so happy,” said Doggette, a sophomore. “I wanted everybody to see what I saw every day.”

After videos of her routines went viral as a junior, Dennis returned this year with a message for racial equality, which she spread through her floor routine. With a music from Black artists and popular dance moves, Dennis wanted to celebrate Black culture in the routine that went on to earn millions of views on social media. The Bruins pushed the statement further by coming together for a Black Excellence Meet, where they wore special leotards that featured a raised fist on the shoulder.

The black-and-gold outfits made their return Friday on the national stage during a meet televised on ESPN2. With three Black gymnasts competing, the wardrobe choice was no accident.

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“All I can say is that’s on Black excellence, period,” Dennis said. “Because we did that. I’m so proud of us and how far we’ve come and everything that we’ve done as a program. … To really be out here representing the Black girls with pride and poise and power and unity, it was really surreal.”

Riding the high of a successful national meet, Dennis left the door open for a return. She has an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dennis, who started the sport at 4 years old, had Olympic aspirations for much of her career. Although she never achieved that goal, she accomplished something bigger at UCLA.

“She’s going to leave a legacy on the sport and this program for a long, long time,” Waller said last week. “But it’s the personal growth that really warms my heart the most.”

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