Elliott: No longer gasping for air, a rejuvenated Nya Reed is thriving with UCLA

Confetti flies at the conclusion of UCLA's Nya Reed's floor routine during an NCAA gymnastics.
Confetti flies at the conclusion of Nya Reed's floor routine during a dual meet between UCLA and Utah at Pauley Pavilion on Monday. (Tracy Gitnick / Associated Press)

Nya Reed’s first workout as a member of UCLA’s gymnastics team almost became her last.

Back in the gym after taking a year off from competition following a career that brought her six All America honors at the University of Florida, Reed began to question what she had signed up for as a Bruin. The athletes were assigned to do a conditioning-focused drill that entails completing three sets of moves within seven minutes and 20 seconds. It came with intense peer pressure: If one athlete can’t complete the round, everyone has to continue.

It didn’t take long before Reed was gasping for air.

“Oh! Let’s talk about it,” Reed said Monday, as teammate Selena Harris laughed in the chair beside her. “My first day back, we had to do 720s. I don't know if y'all know what that is, but it's literally the hardest circuit of my life. Y'all, my chest was on fire.”

Harris helpfully added, “She was the last one to finish.”

Read more: Selena Harris' leadership, perfect 10 helps UCLA gymnastics 'level up' despite loss to Utah

Reed owned it. “I was going by myself, and literally, I almost passed out. Literally. They were like, ‘You have to stop.’ Because I could not breathe. And I was so embarrassed,” Reed said. “I was so embarrassed y'all. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I'm supposed to be this decent gymnast in NCAA, collegiate gymnastics and I'm like, it is not showing up right now.’ But we worked really, really hard and it was embarrassing, but it is what it is.”

More accurately, it was what it was, and is no longer.

Reed survived that day and the next, and has been thriving as a Bruin, moving closer to regaining the terrific form she had exhibited with Florida. “You've come very far,” Harris said, a perfect assessment on the day Harris scored her second straight perfect 10 on vault.

Reed has been battling a bad knee, but her work has been paying off for herself and the Bruins. She supported Harris’ perfect vault Monday with a 9.85, contributing to the Bruins’ season-high team vault score of 49.525.

A shaky rotation on balance beam and two out-of-bounds penalties on floor exercise left the No. 8 Bruins second to the No. 4 Utah Utes, 197.300 to 196.975, in a dual meet contested before a lively Pauley Pavilion crowd that included Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and his daughters. But considering she was merely trying to survive a few months ago, every competition is a step forward for Reed, who finished the meet with a 9.85 on floor exercise.

UCLA's Nya Reed is congratulated after scoring a 9.85 on the vault during a dual meet with Utah on Monday.
UCLA's Nya Reed is congratulated after scoring a 9.85 on the vault during a dual meet with Utah on Monday. (Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

“This season has been absolutely amazing,” she said during a post-meet news conference. “Throughout my five years of doing gymnastics, being here has been the most amazing experience. They have welcomed me so much and it feels like a family. They have done nothing but accept me. It feels like I’ve been here forever with them.

“We’re so close. We laugh. We’re sisters, and I really appreciate being able to have teammates that really support me and love me and want to see me do well. It’s been an amazing journey. I’m really excited to be here.”

Coach Janelle McDonald said she wasn’t concerned when she first spoke to Reed and learned the Landover, Md., native hadn’t been in the gym for a while. She believed it was enough that Reed was working out, and she had faith Reed would regain her gymnastics skills quickly.

“When she came in for fall, we knew we needed to pace her a little bit to make sure that we could build her strength and conditioning and skill level back up in a way that wasn’t going to beat her up,” McDonald said.

“She’s an amazing athlete. Her skill level is through the roof. The energy she brings every day and the work ethic she puts into her training, it’s inspiring, especially after taking that time off. She’s just the ultimate teammate. I think that’s the best thing I can say about her is she shows up every day for her team. Whether that’s in her gymnastics or a pep talk on the side, she just shows up for her team and we’re so grateful she’s a Bruin now.”

Read more: Inside UCLA gymnast Emma Malabuyo's push to juggle classes and qualify for the Olympics

Even if her first training session as a Bruin didn’t go so well. “She was sore for a good two weeks,” McDonald said, smiling.

Being a Bruin hit home with Reed on Monday, when UCLA gymnastics alumni were honored after the meet. The names on the wall of their practice gym came alive, and Reed appreciated it. An aspiring physician’s assistant, she met a former gymnast who is established in that field and offered to mentor her.

“Seeing the African American women gymnasts that came before me here, they’ve been so much help,” Reed said. “They’ve been like, ‘You all got this.’ I like being able to set the bar very high and also be able to have role models.”

She hasn’t yet reached her previous performance level, but that’s coming.

“I would say I'm pretty close. I'm almost there,” she said. “I feel like the little details definitely was something I was very mindful of at Florida and I'm trying to remember those little details and not compare myself, as much as I possibly can, to the old me because I am a different person, I'm in a different environment and I love being here.

“So I'm almost there and I'm really excited about it, but I would say I'm definitely a happier gymnast than I've ever been."

That she's no longer gasping for air is a bonus.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.