Danusia Francis, a charismatic freshman on the UCLA gymnastics team, had a little trick up her sleeve Sunday for the balance beam event final in the NCAA championships at Pauley Pavilion.
Francis did something you probably shouldn't try at home - even on the ground and certainly not on a balance beam. It was a move she described afterward as "a backward cartwheel with no hands."
And she landed it, the first collegiate gymnast to perform that difficult aerial trick on the balance beam.
But then she fell on a routine tumbling pass and finished eighth on the beam. After her accomplishment, it almost didn't matter.
Even opposing coaches, impressed with her skill, were rooting for Francis and were disappointed when she fell.
Florida coach Rhonda Faehn, who had competed in college at UCLA, said she was awestruck when Francis did the trick. "There are very few gymnasts in the world, even at the elite level, who are so flexible," Faehn said. "It was mind-blowing to watch and that she did it, took that risk and made it without even a wobble, I think we all appreciated it."
Alabama coach Sarah Patterson said, "We watched her in warmups, and I think everybody was amazed." Louisiana State coach D-D Breaux, who is in her 36th year of college coaching, said, "When she hit that, the competition was obviously hers. It was devastating to watch her fall."
Francis wasn't as devastated. Afterward, the British-born gymnast couldn't stop smiling as she described her happiness in competing her breathtaking skill. "I'm glad people liked it," she said.
It hasn't been an easy season for Francis. She came to UCLA after spending last summer doing a demonstration beam routine before every Olympic women's gymnastics event in London.
Midway through the season, UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field found a homesick Francis in her office. "She just wanted a hug," Kondos Field said.
Kondos Field said Francis learned the side aerial trick this summer. "She never competed it, but she was training it all year," Kondos Field said. "She said she was so excited after she did it, she didn't even realize she was on the floor when she had her miss. She thought she was still on the beam, not the floor."
Even without the win, Francis was the star of the day.
Bridget Sloan, a 2008 Olympian who won the balance beam title with a score of 9.900, threw up her hands and said, "Never," when asked about Francis' move.
Alabama's Diandra Milliner and LSU's Rheagan Courville tied for the vault title.
Florida's Alaina Johnson, who missed almost two months this winter because of stress fractures in her back, won the uneven bars title, finishing just ahead of teammate Sloan. And Michigan's Joanna Sampson won the floor exercise title.
Sam Mikulak, a Michigan sophomore from Corona del Mar, Calif., won men's NCAA individual event titles on parallel bars and high bar Sunday at Penn State. On Saturday he had led the Wolverines to a team title, and Mikulak won the all-around.
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