By Christy Sandmaier

On September 21, 2020 U.S. Olympic alternate Emma Malabuyo posted a picture on her Instagram thoughtfully smiling, poised and showing off a glimpse of one of her favorite spots on the beautiful UCLA campus. She captioned the image, “days like these.” It’s the first of so many photos she’ll probably post in what promises to be a bright future as a student athlete for the Bruins. And just one of many reflective smiles from Malabuyo we’re certain to see as she launches this new chapter in her career.

Malabuyo has truly lived a lot in her gymnastics life on her way to Westwood. Her glow-up in 2021 is one of the stories that captured our hearts in a year with an endless array of captivating Olympic storylines framed by a pandemic and a Games as unpredictable as possible. Ultimately, as it was for so many athletes this year, Malabuyo’s satisfaction and joy wasn’t found in the final results but in the journey she took. A journey that for her, was anything but smooth. Afterall, earning the opportunity to just try for Tokyo was amazing and for a while, the furthest thing from Malabuyo’s mind. 

She first caught our attention in 2017 with her floor routine and passion for performing. In an age when far too many floor exercise routines lack theme, emotion, musicality and true expressivity, Malabuyo broke through with a performance quality we hadn’t seen much of, and fans took note. As the All-Around silver medalist and floor gold medalist at the 2017 Junior U.S. Championships, Malabuyo commanded attention with her skills, interpretive presentation and engaging choreography, and suddenly found herself on everyone’s list for Tokyo 2020. She was ready to be a star and looked comfortable with the part.

Just as she was getting ready to shine on the senior circuit in 2018, she found herself already on the comeback trail when a back injury kept her out of the U.S. Championships. In 2019, Malabuyo finished 3rd All-Around and 2nd on beam and floor at Jesolo and looked to be full speed ahead, but a fractured tibia kept her out of Championships for the second consecutive year.

Once healthy and with a new plan in place for 2020, the pandemic hit and she found herself alongside so many athletes wondering if she had one more year in her to make her Tokyo dream a reality. It was difficult to say the least and soon Malabuyo contemplated giving up her run for the Olympics completely.

“Going into 2021, obviously, the goal was just to see if my body could make it through this year. I just wanted to try and make it to the Olympic Trials,” Malabuyo said. “That was my initial goal, nothing big or anything like that. When I competed at Winter Cup, that was a really hard competition on me and one of my worst competitions, and then I had a really bad camp. I was just like, ‘You know, I don’t even know if Elite is for me right now’ because my body felt like it was going downhill and I didn’t have my skills. It was just really hard at the beginning of the year.

Malabuyo’s run for an Olympic spot could have ended in disappointment and resignation that maybe her body just couldn’t take it. Instead, she refocused and redialed her Olympic dream with renewed resolve and the help of her longtime coach at Texas Dreams, Kim Zmeskal-Burdette.

“There was a mindshift,” Malabuyo told us of her training. “I talked with my coach so many times and said I just really needed to switch things up and make a different schedule for me. I started training a little bit less and then I started telling her skills I wanted to do and setting little goals for myself. Instead of thinking big sets and big routines, we broke it into smaller pieces. I wanted to do easier skills and easier routines first before I did something else. All these little changes and also a different mindset going into it, when I started accomplishing these mini goals it gave me more confidence that I could do the big routines.”

It showed. Once she arrived in Fort Worth for the U.S. Championships, the injuries, the setbacks, the uncertainty and the extra year all faded as a new Malabuyo emerged as a new athlete embracing the moment, enjoying gymnastics and hitting her routines. “When I was doing well, especially at Championships, that was definitely one of my highlights. It was a really great competition for me. I really enjoyed it.” 

She placed 4th in the All-Around, stunning nearly everyone, and earned her spot to compete in the Olympic Trials in St. Louis, which she calls her most favorite competition of all time. “Going in with a positive attitude and not putting pressure on myself and doing it for myself – going in with that attitude really helped me and I was so happy I was able to make the Olympic alternate!”

Malabuyo attributes her success this year to having a voice in her own training, a new belief in herself and focusing on enjoying gymnastics again. “I definitely think all these changes helped. Kim just helped me a lot because she said, “I’m your teammate, I’m not going to try and be your coach.” And so I think we had this partnership and we worked together. I really had a voice and I spoke up a lot. I was really open about it – the skills I wanted to do. I communicated every day how my body was feeling and I think that was a key and what helped me achieve this year.”

Working with multiple national team coordinators, experiencing multiple national team training sites and protocol, an evolving culture, along with finding and expressing her own voice as an athlete without the fears past generations may have faced, also shaped Malabuyo’s approach to training and competing, and proved her resiliency more than ever. 

“In the beginning, it was really hard not knowing what to expect,” she said of her experiences early on in the quad. “For example, in 2018, I was at my peak and then we had all these changes. I had all of these emotions wondering if I was going to still be able to compete not knowing what was going to happen. But, I’m so happy we did have these changes. Camps are a lot better. We don’t feel as much pressure, but we still get the job done. They’re asking each gymnast after each camp what they can do better or what changes can be made, and I think that’s really helpful.”

As an alternate, Malabuyo travelled to Tokyo with the team and took in as much of the Olympic experience as possible even though circumstances proved challenging. The six-member team and four alternates were in separate training groups in the gym but ate together, though their seating was spaced out. They also stayed in a hotel instead of the Olympic Village. When fellow Olympic alternate Kara Eaker tested positive for COVID-19 very early on in Tokyo, it created uncertainty and questions surrounding the protocol for the U.S. women’s team, but Malabuyo and her teammates rallied around each other and continued to focus on the job at hand.

 “When Kara got COVID, it was really hard because it was only Kayla [DiCello] and I training in the gym once the team went to the village,” she said. “We had to do full routines and only cheer for each other. I think that was the hardest training I’ve done because you don’t have all of your teammates and you’re doing the hardest training of your life. But, I’m happy I pushed through it.”

In addition to loving the people in Japan, who she said were all welcoming and helpful, Malabuyo enjoyed watching gymnasts from other countries practicing and performing their routines. “It was so cool seeing all these different countries doing all these different skills that were amazing.”

Now, a new story is ready to be written for Malabuyo at UCLA and this one will take place inside Pauley Pavilion and college arenas across the country. She cites her immediate connection with the coaches and the vibe on the team as top reasons she chose to be a Bruin and experienced the excitement of being on campus almost immediately when she was introduced alongside fellow Bruin Olympians during a halftime celebration at the Rose Bowl. An experience she found both nerve-wracking and exciting. “I was so nervous to be on the field! Watching everybody in the crowd, I got chills. It was so exciting.”

Like so many student athletes, she loves working together with her teammates, and knowing they have her back on and off the floor. Her roommate is U.S. National Team member and 2021 Winter Cup floor exercise silver medalist and All-Around bronze medalist Emily Lee, and she joins a stellar freshmen class that includes Lee, along with Canadian standouts Brooklyn Moors and Ana Padurariu.

“I can’t wait to perform in Pauley Pavilion because of the crowd and the energy, and the floor routines! I’m so excited for my floor routine! I just can’t wait to compete. All of the diversity, the people here, the campus, the team – all of those things are just amazing,” she said. 

Skillswise, Malabuyo is hoping to keep her back handspring layout layout in her beam routine, hopefully compete her double layout full out dismount off bars because “it’s just so much fun,” and even though she’s not sure what tumbling she’ll throw on floor, she’s excited for the possibilities and very much looking forward to those famous UCLA dance parties during competition.

Most important to Malabuyo, who looks up to Bruin stars Kyla Ross – “she’s so humble and hardworking” – and Peng Peng Lee because of Lee’s flare and style, is being a team player and taking in all of the advice and experience the upperclassmen have to offer. “What I’ve learned, and what they’ve really taught me and the other freshmen is working as a team. We’re all going to be connected. When we’re doing conditioning or the events, we’re really working as a team and I really enjoy that. I really feel like I’m a part of something special. We’re doing it all for each other.”

Currently undeclared, Malabuyo is thinking of majoring in Communications with thoughts of sports broadcasting or commentating in her future but also has an interest in Psychology. And as for the glow-up this year, it’s about more than just gymnastics. “I think I’m a naturally happy person but I think this year, I finally just let it out. Even when I’m practicing, I show it. It’s about the little things and being focused on small goals, not always being perfect. I told [Head Coach] Chris [Waller] that I just really enjoy gymnastics. It’s so fun. Practice is fun. We had a conditioning circuit and even though it was really hard, just the cheering, everybody on the team on your side and having your back, I just really love that.” 

She’s also found a few places on campus she considers her go-to spots as she settles into her new routine in the gym and out. “I love UCLA. Being out here and being a part of this amazing team, I love how they carry themselves. We went to a retreat recently and I think I really bonded with every single person on the team, so I just love the energy. It’s just so much fun. I haven’t enjoyed gymnastics so much in a long time. It’s so beautiful and I love the diversity of people and there’s just so many things that you can do and of course, the weather here is always perfect!”

As she works daily to define her own personal success, Malabuyo, who describes herself as determined, optimistic and an open book, definitely has some gymnastics goals in mind at UCLA. She’d love to score a perfect 10 or two as a Bruin, be an example in the gym by being happy and enjoying training, and of course, win a National Championship with her team.

And as she dons blue and gold for the next four years, we’re certain Emma Malabuyo will be embracing many more days like these.

Photos by UCLA Athletics; Lloyd Smith Inside Gymnastics 

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