UCLA gymnasts wear Black Excellence message on their sleeves

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Thuc Nhi Nguyen
·4 min read
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UCLA gymnasts display the black and gold uniforms they will wear Saturday against Oregon State.
UCLA gymnasts display the Black Excellence uniforms they will wear Saturday against Oregon State. From left: Nia Dennis, Margzetta Frazier, Sekai Wright and Chae Campbell. (BJ Das / UCLA Gymnastics)

In less than two seasons on UCLA’s coaching staff, associate head coach Kristina Comforte has had three of her leotard designs featured during Bruins gymnasts' viral floor routines. There was a high-necked navy blue and gold look, another with white-and-blue ombre sleeves and sparkling crystals with a bold glittering gold.

The newest creation is her favorite. Not only because the black-and-gold leotards the Bruins will wear Saturday against Oregon State are beautiful — with elegant gold patterns, gold trim around the neck and waist and across the collarbone, with diamonds dotting the neck line and sleeves — but because they’re powerful, too.

The leotard features a raised black fist on the right shoulder.

Entering an arena before a meet is like “going into a battlefield,” junior Sekai Wright said. These special leotards are their armor as they fight to spread a message of racial equality during their first Black Excellence meet.

“I feel empowered [in the leotard],” senior Nia Dennis said. “I honestly feel unstoppable.”

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In previous years, the Bruins have competed in honor of childhood cancer awareness, sexual abuse survivors and the LGBTQ community, but the stance on racial issues is like “tipping it over the edge,” Wright said. It’s an especially bold message considering the arena of a predominantly white sport.

The Bruins have four Black gymnasts — Wright, Dennis, junior Margzetta Frazier and freshman Chae Campbell. They posed together wearing the new leotard in photos shared on social media this week. The picture of them standing on stone benches, each wearing a black mask while raising her right fist, had the caption “#RepresentationMatters.”

Sports teams traditionally sew patches to their uniforms for special messages, but doing so would destroy the fabric of a leotard. Gymnastics teams often celebrate themed meets with T-shirts or hair ribbons instead. Settling for a small accessory or a shirt that would be hidden on the sideline as soon as a gymnast takes the floor wasn’t enough this time.

UCLA started sketching this leotard design in the summer when the team joined in a racial reckoning amid the George Floyd protests. Comforte, who is in charge of leotard decisions, consulted with all four of UCLA’s Black gymnasts on the design.

“Their input has been invaluable,” said Comforte, who is white. “They have been so amazing to work with, in just having discussions with our team, having discussions with us and just understanding our platform, the inspiration that they have, but also the difference that they can have.”

UCLA debuts a new leotard almost every meet and the looks consistently garner debate in gymnastics-obsessed circles on the internet the same way NBA fans rank teams' new alternate jerseys every season. The Bruins have had daring backless leotards, delicate lace sleeves and eye-catching fishnet, all creating a buzz among the team’s more than 1 million combined followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It’s the largest social media following for any team at UCLA and leads all women’s NCAA teams.

The leotard reveal earned praise online this week, with many people calling it fierce and regal. Some loved it so much they wanted matching long-sleeve T-shirts. Others, however, accused the Bruins of being discriminatory by posting “Black Lives Matter” when they revealed the fist pictured on the leotard. Detractors wrote that the team shouldn’t “go political” and asked whether there would be a “white excellence” meet.

Although positive feedback seemed to outweigh the negative, the team discussed the reactions during a meeting this week.

“I’m incredibly proud of our program and our Black student-athletes who have wanted to put these statements out there and be leaders in this space,” head coach Chris Waller, who is white, said. “We knew there was going to be some struggles by being forward, but we’re banding together, staying together and trying to be as optimistic we can. We want to make a difference.”

The Bruins start each home meet by kneeling in a circle around the floor, inviting the opposing team to join them in a moment of silence to reflect on racial injustice. The “Stand Together” patch designed by UCLA athletes this summer that other teams added to their jerseys is printed on the side of the floor. Getting to wear that message of inclusion this week has given the Bruins an extra jolt.

“We feel nothing but power,” Frazier said. “Being in a black-and-gold leo as a group of powerful women, you can't not feel like you're about to take over the world.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.