Janelle McDonald – Building The Bruins Next Chapter 

By Ashlee Buhler 

When the final scores flashed on the big screen at the NCAA Regional Final in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Bruins couldn’t hold back the tears. Some looked at the scoreboard in disbelief, others began consoling their fellow teammates. They knew they had poured their hearts onto the floor, but it wasn’t enough on that day. The Bruins would miss the NCAA Championships for the second season in a row. 

That was the ending of a harrowing season plagued with high emotions and frustration over how the coaching staff allegedly handled a preseason incident involving a now-former UCLA gymnast using racist language. In April, longtime coach Chris Waller, who spent three seasons at the helm, resigned from his position. That’s when the search began for a new leader who could help the Bruins write the next chapter, one that starts from scratch. 

Nearly 350 miles north of campus, the phones were ringing at Pac-12 rival Cal Berkeley. Assistant coach Janelle McDonald answered the call. Making an impact in the lives of student athletes is one of her biggest goals, and having the opportunity to do just that at one of the most illustrious programs in NCAA gymnastics history is something she couldn’t turn away. 

May 9, 2022 marked what many hope will be a new beginning for UCLA gymnastics. McDonald, who holds two decades of coaching experience at the club and college level, including at Cal where she helped the Bears to their first ever regular season Pac-12 title in 2022, has been warmly welcomed into Westwood by the Bruin community. 

McDonald steps into a program with one of the strongest rosters in the country; featuring household names like Jordan Chiles, fan favorites such as Emma Malabuyo, Brooklyn Moors, and Chae Campbell, and the top recruit in the country, incoming freshman Selena Harris. One would think that a roster this talented would be a shoe-in for a national title, but McDonald knows it’s going to take more than that. Her focus in this new chapter is building a strong culture within the program, where communication, understanding and a positive attitude will be the hallmarks of her coaching philosophy. If they can manage that, McDonald is confident the Bruins will be back on top in no time. 

Inside Gymnastics sat down with Janelle McDonald to discuss her new gig as head coach and her plans for building the next chapter in Westwood.

Congratulations on your new role as head coach! Has this always been a goal of yours? 

It’s always been in the back of my mind. My goal is always to make an impact in the situation I’m in and with the athletes I get to coach. Being able to go through the process of this; being contacted, being brought out to campus and meeting with so many different administrators and coaches, for me I was looking at it like a professional development opportunity kind of. Then when I got to campus I really started to realize how special this opportunity could be and I got really fired up to want to be a part of it. That’s when I really thought, ‘I think I can make a big impact here.’ I think it will be the next best step for my career and something that I think is really special for the student athletes as well.  

Did you seek out the opportunity or did UCLA reach out to you? 

They reached out to me. My sports administrator up at Cal gave me a call and said [UCLA] had reached out. He gave them my phone number and I had a phone call set up with Christina Rivera and kind of went from there.

You have a lot of coaching experience, including outside of the college world. Who do you consider to be your biggest mentor and what lessons did you learn from them?

I’ve had a lot of mentors over the years. I think at WOGA, probably Laurent and Cecile [Landi] were probably some of my biggest mentors because it was the first time I had athletes working at the elite level and they were really great for me to shoot ideas off of and talk technique and those sorts of things. They’re just really positive people and people that do gymnastics the right way, so I really look up to them and have learned a lot from them. 

Are you at UCLA yet or are you still tying up loose ends in the Bay Area? 

Not yet! I’m in this transitionary period that is quickly coming to an end—thank goodness! I’m actually up in the Bay Area right now. Last weekend I was able to find a place in LA and I’m going to be moving next weekend, so I’m kind of in that whirlwind of trying to pack everything up and get moved but I’m really excited to take that next step and get there full time and dive right in.  

 How much time have you had to spend with the team since stepping into this new role?

After I got hired I was there for two days and then flew to Phoenix for the NCAA Convention and the Development Level 10 National Championships. That whole week was super busy! The following week I flew back to the Bay Area to tie up some things and then I flew back to LA to find a place to live, so while I was there I was able to go to a couple more practices and start some individual meetings and kind of just start getting my head wrapped around this new gig I have! I’m really looking forward to getting there next week… I have individual meetings set up with the entire team. [Right now] is a voluntary period for them in the gym so I’ll probably see some of them in practice, some maybe not, but I’m looking forward to that and building the next chapter! 

How has the team adjusted to this change? 

They’re excited! Every single time I’ve been around them their energy is through the roof and they’re just really excited and looking forward to a fresh start and building this next chapter! 

Once you get settled in, what are some of the first items on your to do list to gear up for next season? 

Definitely hiring some assistant coaches! That’s something I’m really looking forward to doing, just building the staff and starting to build this together. I’ve had some great conversations with people and once I get moved there we’ll bring some people onto campus, kind of the final candidates, and hopefully that will start to fall into place in the next month or so. 

Do you plan to bring back any members of the current coaching staff? 

I’ve told them if they want to be a part of the process to just let me know. That’s kind of where we’re at. 

What qualities and things are you looking for in your staff? 

I definitely want people that balance me; maybe their strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa. I want to have a good balance of energy and definitely would like to have some good, quality, experienced coaches on staff as well to bring that strong technical aspect for the student athletes.  

In terms of your experience and how you lead a team, what do you feel are your strengths? 

I feel like I connect really well with people, and so creating an inclusive environment is something that is one of my strengths. I approach every day with a positive attitude. I think energy and positivity is something that everybody can feed off of and it’s especially important if you’re a student athlete to be surrounded by people that lift you up because it can be a grind and it can be hard. So it’s important to be surrounded by people that help you get through those hard days with a smile on your face. I love gymnastics so I love to have fun in the gym every single day and just have a fun, hard-working environment. 

Have you had a chance to talk to any of the seniors and see if any of them are interested in returning for a 5th year? 

I’ve reached out to all of the seniors and super seniors and have had meetings with most of them. [We’ve had] some meaningful conversations. It was great to get to meet them and learn about their experiences. 

What is the training plan for Jordan Chiles since she will be continuing her elite career in addition to college? 

I think her plan right now is to still train at WCC with Cecile and Laurent. With that, we’ve just talked about having great communication through the process and staying connected with the team as much as she can and then of course, keep chasing her dreams because we support her 100% and what she wants to do in the elite world as well! 

Last season was a difficult one for the team—have you talked to the athletes about what happened and opened dialogue about how you can make the gym a safe and positive environment to be in?

Like I said, I have some individual meetings coming up with everybody on the team so I’m looking forward to those conversations. I think having intentional communication is really important because the more you learn about somebody and their experiences, their culture, their family, the way they think, their passions and their fears, the more you can identify and love and celebrate someone’s character and strengths. That’s what I want for this team; to create a space where we all can learn from each other in a meaningful way and really enjoy and celebrate who each individual is. This team is a very special, diverse group of young women who have a lot of gifts to share with the world and I hope that by the end of the season we’ve created a space where every member can say, ‘I was truly able to be myself on this team and I was celebrated and loved for being me.’ 

What do you see as a potential strength for the team and something you think the team could work on?

We have a lot of really strong athletes on this team and I think consistency is going to be key. I think a lot of that is going to be having fun in the gym, holding them accountable and really enjoying what we’re doing, enjoying the process, and developing a really strong culture. I think if we can nail down those things I think they’re going to be really successful. 

The Bruins have missed the NCAA Championships in the last two seasons—you’ve got the talent, what will it take to get back to that stage? 

They are fired up to be competing at the highest level, I can tell you that much! It excites me! I think they’re a high achieving group of young women and they have goals of competing on the final day of the NCAA season. With that said, my goals for the team this year are to focus on the controllables and I think that’s how we’re going to be able to make it to the end. The way we communicate, the way we connect with each other and the confidence and attitude we show up to each moment with; I can guarantee that if we show up with those things that we should be able to compete with any team in the country. 

Photos courtesy of Jesus Ramirez/UCLA Athletics

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