UCLA's Vanessa Zamarripa is the Pac-12 gymnast of the year and has… (Phil Sandlin / Associated…)
Vanessa Zamarripa, the Pac-12 Conference gymnast of the year, is a fifth-year senior at UCLA who has steadied the Bruins as three key team members suffered season-ending injuries.
Hers was a voice of experience based on how she dealt with her own serious injury, a torn Achilles' tendon she sustained two years ago.
"I'd be happy to give Kobe [Bryant] some tips," Zamarripa quipped Thursday before practice in advance of the 12-team NCAA championships that begin Friday at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA, which has won six national team titles, will participate in the second of two six-team semifinals on Friday. The Bruins are grouped with Arkansas, Alabama, Michigan, Utah and Oklahoma at 6 p.m.. Earlier in the day, Illinois, Georgia, Minnesota, Louisiana State, Stanford and Florida will compete. The top three teams from each semifinal advance to the team finals on Saturday. The meet will conclude Sunday with individual event finals.
UCLA entered this season with high hopes. The Bruins had 2008 Olympic silver medal winner Samantha Peszek; former world champion team member Mattie Larson; and Christine Peng-Peng Lee, a 2012 Olympics hopeful from Canada who suffered a knee injury that kept her out of the competition at London.
But that knee injury also kept Lee sidelined this season, and she was joined by Peszek, who sustained a torn Achilles in December, and Larson, who was knocked out by a knee injury in March.
Zamarripa did all she could to keep UCLA in contention. She is ranked No. 1 nationally in the all-around and vault, No. 4 on the uneven bars, No. 7 in floor exercise and No. 22 on the balance beam.
She is also relentlessly positive. "All the injuries might have almost been a blessing in disguise," Zamarripa said. "It's forced a lot of girls who weren't going to compete to not only compete but to upgrade their routines."
Zamarripa has already won a national championship with UCLA, when she was a freshman. After that, she was invited by United States' women's coach Martha Karolyi to compete for a spot on the USA world championship team. She declined the invitation to work on upgrading her college routines, hoping to try out for the world team the following year. But then she sustained the torn Achilles.
"That changed a lot of plans I had," she said. "Instead of training for worlds I was rehabbing and learning to walk again."
The way she has performed this season, her comeback seems complete. "She is one of the most talented athletes, period, in any sport," UCLA Coach Valorie Kondos Field said. "She's got God-given talent, and she has a compassionate heart as great as her talent. She has no ego at all."
Peszek, who hopes to be back with the Bruins next year, said she has learned about being a competitor by watching Zamarripa this season.
"She gets in a dream-like zone before she competes," Peszek said. "It's so interesting. You can't teach a gymnast how to compete."
At an NCAA regional two weeks ago, Zamarripa whacked her left ankle on the balance beam and suffered a sprain. She was in a walking boot for a few days, but during training Thursday Zamarripa never winced once on a landing.
"I'm fine," she said.
If she is, so is UCLA.