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Inside UCLA gymnast Emma Malabuyo’s push to juggle classes and qualify for the Olympics

Emma Malabuyo works out at UCLA.
UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo works out at Yates Gym on the Bruins’ campus on Jan. 29.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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At 7:20 a.m. sharp, Emma Malabuyo steps out of the elevator across from Pauley Pavilion. A poster of her dressed in a sparkly blue leotard faces the front door of UCLA’s Acosta Training Center. It represents only one of the junior’s goals on this campus.

Malabuyo is a star contributor for the Bruins’ gymnastics team, which is chasing its first appearance in the NCAA championship final since 2019. Toting a black backpack across campus, she is also a full-time student with aspirations of a career in sports broadcasting. A reminder of her latest dream is hanging around her neck — a gold necklace with a pendant of the Olympic rings.

UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo laughs while sitting the splits.
UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo smiles while stretching before practice at Yates Gym on the Bruins’ campus. Malabuyo is juggling a busy schedule, trying to qualify for the Olympics while competing for UCLA and taking classes.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

While a goal as lofty as the Olympics often requires full dedication, Malabuyo is attempting an especially ambitious balancing act. She started her road to Paris in Cairo this weekend and will compete in the floor final Sunday in the first of three World Cup meets with hopes of earning an Olympic berth while representing the Philippines.

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The busy schedule has been overwhelming at points. She was worried professors wouldn’t accommodate her travel schedule that will take her to Egypt, Germany and Azerbaijan in the span of four weeks. UCLA started its season with three consecutive road meets, fighting through the airport on a weekly basis between long training workouts. Some days she can barely lift her arm above her shoulder after undergoing surgery during the summer.

But through the aches and pains, late nights and early mornings, the 21-year-old never stops smiling.

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UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo performs a handstand during a workout on the Bruins' campus.

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UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo sits on an outdoor bench and studies for a midterm on the Bruins' campus.

1. UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo balances elite training while taking classes on campus and online. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times) 2. UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo studies for a midterm on the Bruins’ campus. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“Since I’m focused on so many different things and I’m enjoying them, it’s helping me have more energy and fire for this dream,” Malabuyo said.

Energy is the key ingredient for this Olympic hopeful. The Times recently shadowed Malabuyo during a day in her busy life.

7:20 a.m.: Treatment at Acosta center

The sun is still low on a bright morning when Malabuyo scans her fingerprint to enter UCLA’s primary athletic training facility. As she walks into the training room packed with massage tables, weights and treadmills, UCLA athletes from all sports are preparing for the day. She starts at a binder where she and her teammates log the amount of sleep they get each night. Only six hours. She was studying for a midterm.

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Malabuyo sets up on a padded training table, waiting for gymnastics team trainer Tracy Sokoler to massage her shoulder and legs. Her shoulder is especially tight. It’s been two days since she competed on bars, beam and floor at UCLA’s dual meet against Washington on Jan. 27.

Two athletes stand in an ice bath.
UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo, right, and freshman Alex Irvine stand in an ice bath.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Malabuyo didn’t used to have to do all this. When she started at UCLA, she could show up for practice 10 or 15 minutes early, warm up and get started. The one time she slept in recently, thinking she could get away without her 45-minute, pre-practice massage and activation routine of squats, lunges and resistance band exercises, she couldn’t take any landings on her ailing knee.

“My body feels just so much older,” Malabuyo said.

After more than a decade of training 36 hours a week with hopes of making the U.S. Olympic team, Malabuyo was happy to retire from elite gymnastics after being named an alternate for the Tokyo Games. The five-time U.S. national team member brushed off Filipino gymnastics officials when they first approached her about switching federations last year. She couldn’t bear training at elite levels anymore, she thought.

 Emma Malabuyo works out on the beam.
UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo, foreground, works out on the balance beam at Yates Gym.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“The expectations in America, you need to be up here no matter what,” Malabuyo said, raising her hand to her eye level. “Your difficulty needs to be up here. You need to be like this. In the Philippines, we just appreciate you doing gymnastics for us.”

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With reassurance from the Filipino federation that she could perform her college-level routines, Malabuyo competed at the Asian championships last summer after writing a letter to USA Gymnastics requesting an International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) nationality change. Representing her grandparents’ home country, she won silver on floor, the highest placement ever for a Filipina gymnast at the Asian championships.

Suddenly she started dreaming of the Olympics again.

8 a.m.: Practice at Yates Gym

Autumn Grable stands in front a white board covered in details about the day's workout.
UCLA gymnastics assistant coach Autumn Grable reviews the day’s workout plans with athletes.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A group of gymnasts crowds around a white board. Assistant coach Autumn Grable spells out the assignment. It’s a light day.

Mondays in Yates Gym often are reserved for refining details with more drills than big skills. When Malabuyo jumps onto the beam for the warmup, even the simplest cartwheel is garnished with a perfect finishing pose.

What’s helping me go towards this dream is that there’s a lot of flexibility. ... It’s more of, just go out to these competitions, do what you can, do the best that you can do and go out there with no regrets.

— UCLA gymnast Emma Malabuyo, who is trying to qualify for the Paris Olympics

Malabuyo balances her collegiate routines — which are geared toward impeccable form instead of maximum difficulty — and her elite skills by working on her upgraded elements every other day. When she competes in the World Cup events, hoping to earn Olympic qualification on beam or floor, her routines mostly will stay the same. She will add difficulty on beam by changing her dismount and tweaking some combinations. On floor, she will add a triple wolf turn and get more difficulty on her leap series while competing with her Paula Abdul routine from last season.

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The routine changes weren’t mandates from Filipino coaches. Instead, Malabuyo used her own understanding of the code of points to maximize her difficulty while constructing her routines. Instead of choreographers scripting every movement for her, Malabuyo sends different videos to national team coaches and judges for feedback. They trust her with her skills.

Emma Malabuyo laughs while riding an exercise bike alongside teammates.
UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo, center, balances elite training while attending classes on the Bruins’ campus and online.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m really enjoying this process and I’m taking ownership of my gymnastics,” Malabuyo said. “I think that’s a big piece that’s very different than what I did before. … It’s a partnership with my coaches and we’re working together.”

With Tokyo in mind, Malabuyo woke up at 5:50 a.m. three years ago. She got to the gym at 6:30 and practiced until noon. After going to the chiropractor and getting treatment or physical therapy, she returned at 4 for a second practice. Every day she completed, at minimum, six full beam routines without wobbles.

The Bruins are hoping to compete for a national championship in Janelle McDonald’s second season as coach, and their gains in vault could get them there.

Jan. 5, 2024

Looking back, she acknowledges she didn’t enjoy it.

With the same lofty dream three years later, Malabuyo doesn’t seem to carry the same weight. She manages her aching joints by completing two beam routines a day and working on mental visualization that has her feeling more confident in her gymnastics than ever. She gets to laugh with teammates during practices. She cheers them on during meets.

She enjoys this.

UCLA gymnasts stand in a team huddle.
UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo, center, stands between teammates Sydney Barros, left, and Nya Reed during a team huddle.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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“Doing all those extra things really contributes to my overall happiness and joy,” Malabuyo said. “And when I’m feeling happy, I can do anything.”

At the end of the three-hour practice, Malabuyo grabs her phone out of the organizer hanging on the wall and takes her jewelry out of her locker. She fastens chunky gold hoop earrings and clips on her gold Olympic necklace.

12:21 p.m.: Study break outside Powell Library

Malabuyo grabs her first meal of the day from inside the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, where there is a grab-and-go buffet for athletes. Sitting on a bench outside of Powell Library, she spreads a to-go container filled with steak, fish, asparagus, baked potato and pineapple across her lap. She eats only a few bites. She pulls a notebook out of her backpack and begins mumbling key words under her breath to prepare for her midterm in mass communication and sociology.

This quarter Malabuyo is taking three classes, including a musicology course and a theater class, that all meet online. But exams are in person. Although she was a scholastic All-American last year, Malabuyo still gets more nervous for tests than any beam routine. She was home schooled since she was 11 and is used to taking tests alone.

Emma Malabuyo wears a gold necklace featuring Olympic rings.
UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo wears a gold necklace featuring Olympic rings as she studies for a midterm on the Bruins’ campus.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Chasing the Olympics as a gymnast is often an isolating, all-consuming endeavor in the United States. Malabuyo quit public school when her family moved from the Northern California city of Milpitas to Texas in 2013. Her club coach, Elisabeth Crandall-Howell, was taking a collegiate job at California and recommended Malabuyo join Texas Dreams, one of the country’s premiere elite gyms. Her parents and two siblings uprooted their lives for her to get a shot at the Olympics.

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Before competing at the 2021 Olympic trials, she broke down in tears. Malabuyo told her parents that it felt like the last 12 years of her life all came down to four minutes of competition.

Gymnast Simone Biles becomes the most decorated athlete in the sport’s history, winning her 34th medal in Olympic and world championship competition.

Oct. 6, 2023

She considered deferring school for a year to chase the Olympics again. Teammates Jordan Chiles and Ana Padurariu already did so. But Malabuyo knew she didn’t want to go on the road solo again. Although there is more on her plate, she’s happy to carry it all.

“What’s helping me go towards this dream is that there’s a lot of flexibility in different things and different aspects of my life that just fills up my cup,” Malabuyo said. “There’s so many different things that I have instead of [being] focused on this one thing — one and only, it’s the end-all, be-all. I’m not putting that pressure on myself. It’s more of, just go out to these competitions, do what you can, do the best that you can do and go out there with no regrets.”

Emma Malabuyo smiles while extending her arms and working out on the beam.
UCLA junior gymnast Emma Malabuyo practices impeccable form on the beam at Yates Gym.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

To qualify for the Olympics, Malabuyo will compete on beam and floor in World Cup events in Cairo (this weekend), Cottbus, Germany (next weekend) and Baku, Azerbaijan (March 7-10). Gymnasts accumulate points throughout the World Cup Series by finishing in the top 16 on each apparatus. Malabuyo must finish the World Cup meets in the top two in the points standings — excluding gymnasts from countries that already qualified for the Games — on either apparatus to punch her ticket to Paris.

Malabuyo occasionally allows herself to imagine what it would be like to compete in the Olympics. She pictures traveling to Paris and entering the Olympic arena. She’s not the only one dreaming big.

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While Malabuyo is reviewing her notes a final time before her exam, Alex Peros, a former UCLA water polo player, walks by. Peros sits next to Malabuyo and says she and her family already have tickets for the Paris Olympics. Peros raises her eyebrows. Malabuyo smiles.

“Hopefully,” she says.

But first, this Olympic hopeful has a midterm.

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