“I’ve had many experiences at UCLA, and I wouldn’t have changed one thing or wanted it any other way. It has helped me grow in so many ways and I am so appreciative and grateful for the opportunities being at UCLA gave me.” – Norah, On Her Time at UCLA

Norah Flatley Readies For a New Chapter In Fayetteville 

By Christy Sandmaier

On her final day competing as a UCLA Bruin, senior Norah Flatley performed four of the most beautiful and perfect routines of her life. Every skill showcased her trademark technique and style, including her triple full on floor – undeniably one of the most perfect pieces of gymnastics on the planet. After a stellar start, we watched as she floated through an easy Yurchenko full, held our breath on bars as she expertly finessed each skill, and walked step by step with her during beam. We all wished it could go on a little longer.

As an individual All-Around qualifier to the 2022 NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Flatley rotated alongside the defending champion Michigan Wolverines, and finished in an eight-way tie for fourth on beam, and seventh in the All-Around. With her incredible competition complete, Flatley couldn’t hide her tears following her final routine. It was as if everything she experienced in her gymnastics journey and everything being Bruin taught her brought her to that moment. 

Her routines at NCAAs were an opportunity to just let go and perform without pressure after a difficult couple of years including a global pandemic, ankle injuries, and program turmoil. While each challenge brought its own set of circumstances and no doubt at times took a toll mentally during the season, Flatley rose above all of it. 

What remained to be seen by all of us once the chalk settled in Fort Worth was whether she would be back for a fifth year as a result of the additional year of eligibility granted by the NCAA during the COVID-19 pandemic, and if she would be in Westwood representing Bruin blue and gold to do it. In an era where the transfer portal is now as familiar as the college salute, Flatley’s decision was one of the most anticipated fifth year announcements and widely speculated across social media for weeks. 

On May 31, the news broke that Flatley would not only be taking fifth year, but she would be doing in Fayetteville as a member of the University of Arkansas Gymbacks. Arkansas called it an “Encore” and Flatley took to Twitter to share her excitement emphasizing it was “Time to have FUN!!!”

A three-time All-American, four-time All-Pac-12 honoree and a 2019 regular season All-American on bars in her time with the Bruins, Flatley is heading to Fayetteville to be part of a team on the rise and is so excited to be coached by three women who know her very well and who she looks up to so much. They are, in fact, one of the driving forces behind her decision.

Flatley competed with Arkansas coaches Felicia Hano and Kyla Ross at UCLA in her first two years, as Ross and Hano wrapped their collegiate competition careers in 2020. Flatley was also guided by head coach Jordyn Wieber in her freshman season, which was Wieber’s final year as a volunteer assistant coach for the Bruins before being hired at Arkansas.

“I could not be more thrilled that Norah has chosen Arkansas for the upcoming season, to continue her academic and athletic career. Norah brings so much to the table, including her performance quality, difficulty, and experience,” Wieber said in the news release. “She has already had incredible success and I have no doubt she will bring her competitive spirit and leadership to this program.”

Chatting with her just days away from graduation, Flatley was glowing with excitement about the ceremony ahead and the accomplishment it represents. The difficult days taught her so much about herself she says, and she’s cherishing each moment she has left in LA while simultaneously so excited about what the future holds as she moves from the PAC-12 to the SEC and begins her Master’s degree. 

What was also so evident during our interview was just how much perspective Flatley has gained this year and how all of it has made her a stronger student-athlete and person. At a time when we need to be amplifying the athletes’ voices more than ever and telling their individual stories, Flatley is more than ready to move forward, let her personality and authenticity shine on the floor and off, prioritize what’s important, and support her teammates in any way she can. 

“I just want to continue to support all of those around me. I think that’s something so important. I think that’s something so needed in sports, just more support in whatever anybody is going through.” 

She also wants to have fun while doing it. At the end of the day, all of those things put together is what this encore is all about.

“I’m just so excited to get my Master’s, be at a new school, make so many new friendships and relationships,” she says, “and to end my career in the healthiest, happiest state of mind possible.”

In Her Own Words

I think your fifth year announcement was one of the most anticipated of all of them! How are you feeling and did you anticipate so much excitement on social media once the news was out?

I’m feeling literally over the moon about my next chapter, my next phase of college and my athletic career! One more year of it, and I’m so, so excited. I was not anticipating the excitement on social media at all! I didn’t even know what people were going to say. I was a little nervous, but I was more excited than anything. This has been a very personal decision for me to take this fifth year at Arkansas and so I wasn’t worried about what people thought, but I was very surprised the way it blew up!

Where are you in the transition process as far as being on campus? What are your plans this summer leading up to your fifth year?

Since season’s been over, I’ve taken a lot of resting time, recovery time, and finishing school. I’m going to be graduating Thursday, so that’s super exciting! I’m kind of just in the moment here for my last few days at UCLA. I’ve been soaking it all in, enjoying the last few months of my undergrad and the people here, and just embracing the memories and everything that has happened here. I’ll be moving this Friday after I graduate and starting a new chapter.

UCLA has been your home for the last four years. I’m sure there’s a lot of emotion going on…

Definitely. I have such great memories of UCLA and I’ve met such great people. I’m going to miss the girls here so much. My teammates, my sisters – I have just so much love in the world for them and I absolutely can’t wait to see them thrive here, while I’m at a different school. I’m going to miss them, so it is emotional – but good emotions!

How did your UCLA teammates respond when you told them your decision to go to Arkansas?

They seem super happy and excited for me! I just told them that I’m in a place in my life where I want to experience new things and put myself out there and just try different things. They were all super understanding and supportive of it. I can’t wait to see them do well and I can’t wait to be in a new place.

For people who might not understand or be familiar, can you tell us about the transfer process, entering the transfer portal – as much as you can say and what your own experience was – and then ultimately how you chose Arkansas? How did it all come together?

I entered the transfer portal, I believe, back in March. I didn’t know, really, what was going to come out of it. I didn’t know if any schools would even want me. I wasn’t even sure I was going to take a fifth year. I was pretty confident that after four years I was done and would be ready to move on. I really got motivation to get my Master’s, so that’s what sparked me wanting to enter the transfer portal. I pretty immediately got some emails and I was like, “oh my gosh, it’s happening!” It was a little overwhelming at first, but I just took it day by day and school by school. I was completely open to whoever wanted to reach out, whatever they wanted to offer – just open to anything because like I said, I wanted a new experience. I wanted to know what else was out there. I took my time in the deciding process and after Nationals I took a trip to Arkansas. It was incredible.

Jordyn and her whole staff are amazing. She’s an amazing recruiter. She got me (laughs)! I, of course, had connections with Jordyn in the past. I loved being coached by her my freshman year. Obviously, I’d trained with Kyla and Felicia. The whole process with all of the schools was very positive. They were so supportive. Everyone from every school just wanted to support me and what I needed help with. It was very reassuring to know no matter where I went, I was in good hands.

That had to be incredibly encouraging to you not only as a student-athlete but as a person to have that support from all of these different programs, knowing maybe what you were going through at the time and what you were trying to decide…

Like I said, I really didn’t know if anybody would want to pick me up. I’m 22 years-old! I didn’t know if they’d want a fifth year super senior on the team because all of these schools have such amazing rosters, I didn’t know where I could fit into that. But to see them reach out to me and value me, and care about me as a person meant a lot.

Your four routines at NCAAs were, to me, the best competition of your life. How do you feel about those routines, and given the year that you had… how do you think you were able to perform so well?

It took a lot of hard work, definitely. A lot of balancing. During the weeks leading up to the competition, I would literally do one or two routines on each event a week just to make sure I was fresh and not too tired. There was definitely a lot of planning going into it with my coaches, which was very helpful. At Nationals, it was so exciting. I knew it was my last meet for UCLA wearing these colors. I feel like I had no pressure on myself. All year I put a lot of pressure on myself to do it for other people and I think at Nationals, I just wanted to let myself be free and have fun. I think that’s why the result was so good.

It was such a moment for all of us watching to see you compete so well and look so happy… we hoped you were living in and enjoying the moment because you certainly looked like you were…

I definitely was. And I truly felt everyone’s support for me. That’s been one of the most overwhelming and emotional things, just seeing everyone’s support for me during this time because it has been a hard two years. It’s been such a growing time for me. At the end of the day, it’s all been a positive experience because I’ve learned so much and have had so much positive support.

What was it like rotating with Michigan? Even after their very tough beam rotation, they were still just as supportive watching you finish your competition…

It was such a great experience to be rotating with Michigan! I was familiar with the girls and Bev – during this whole transfer process I was talking to Bev and some of the girls at Michigan. It was so amazing to be able to reconnect with them at Nationals and be familiar after our conversations. It was tough to see them have a tough meet but they were so kind and supportive all the way through the end of my competition and that was heartwarming. I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life. That’s really what sports are for – to see those types of moments. It was so amazing.

All of your lives are out there on social media all the time. What do you wish fans knew about student-athletes as people, before they make a comment about a score, a routine or anything else…

We’re human just like them. Of course, it’s sport and part of sport to nitpick what somebody does that you don’t like. At the end of the day, we’re all human. There’s only so much we can control. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t see – struggles we may be going through, struggles coaches may be going through. You can correct the skills, you can say what you don’t like about my floor routine, but when it comes to personal stuff, just remember we’re human.

Moving forward, Arkansas labeled this your “Encore” season. What are you most excited about for this year? What are you ready to do right when you get there?

To interact with the girls! I’m so excited to just be on the team with the girls and start this journey of a new season with them. I’m ready to meet them, become friends with them and be in the gym working with them every day.

Does it feel different going into a new program as a fifth year, compared to your freshman year at UCLA? You’re a fifth senior as opposed to a freshman, obviously… but is the anxiety of not quite knowing what to expect still there?

Of course! There’s always anxiety! I mean, there’s still some uncertainties for me [going in] that make me anxious, but that’s why I chose Arkansas. It’s one of the most comfortable places for me because I’m so familiar with the coaching staff. When I went to take a visit, it was so reassuring I knew I was going to be okay there. After doing a whole four years at UCLA I do have some grasp of what new things are like and how to handle them which is good. New things are always anxiety-filled! I’m excited. It’s an encore, so why not go out big!

Who have you looked up to throughout your career?

Gabby Douglas, Shawn Johnson… I trained with them, they were my idols before my elite career. (Liang) Chow and his wife Li (Liwen Zhuang) have been like second parents to me and one of my biggest inspirations. They taught me to be true to who I am and I’ve continued to do what they taught me all the way through my college career.  They’re one of the biggest reasons I’m still doing gymnastics. Through my college career, definitely Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian – just honestly, anyone I’ve trained with I always find something inspirational whether they’re competing all four events or not competing any events.

For those athletes looking to embark on their own NCAA careers, what would you advise them to look for, look out for – maybe things you wish you had known before you started the journey?

Definitely value education the most. At the end of the day, you want to be leaving the school with a great diploma and degree. That’s something that I really want girls to look at. And you know, looking at the culture of the team and where you think you fit into that and how you connect is really important, too.

With so much pressure surrounding NIL and all of the extra pressures coming into play for student-athletes, I feel like it’s really important for athletes in your position to share your experiences and what’s been most important to you…

The NIL scene is really sparkly and fun but at the end of the day, you need to be able to do your school first, your gymnastics, and then if you have time you can move on to NIL stuff. Definitely don’t prioritize the NIL and money. Prioritize your school, your mental health and your gymnastics, and your social life first, before all that stuff.

One last question that I like to ask everybody. You’re writing a letter to your 10 year-old self. What would you say?

I would tell her she’s doing such a great job. And, to not put so much pressure on herself to please other people, even though she will no matter what (laughs)! Just relax and know that she’s doing a good job and she doesn’t have to be perfect. Everything is going to work out.

Anything else you’d like to add or want your fans to know?

I just want to tell everyone thank you and I wish I could give everyone hugs and love in person. I really do feel the support. It’s one of the things that’s really gotten me through the hard times is when people support me. I really do appreciate them and I support them all back.

Photos by Lloyd Smith and Grace Chiu for Inside Gymnastics

For more on University of Arkansas Gymnastics see our March/April 2020 Issue

Arkansas’ Lovett and Hambrick Look Forward to a Fifth Year to Give Back and Enjoy More “Absolutely Organized Chaos”

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