Tacoma gymnast hopes to land a Pac-10 title
Special to The Seattle Times
The last time she won a title in Washington, Onnie Willis was wearing track spikes. Now the graduate of Wilson High School in Tacoma will aim to win a medal in her bare feet.
Willis, a UCLA sophomore, is a prominent member of the nation's top-ranked gymnastics team, one of seven top-25 teams (including 16th-ranked Washington) competing in the Pac-10 gymnastics championships at 6 p.m. tomorrow at Edmundson Pavilion.
Willis has been a gymnast since age 4 and trained as a Level 10 competitor during her high school years with Puget Sound Gymnastics. But Sam Ring, her freshman physical education teacher at Wilson (and the school's track coach), persuaded her to give track and field a try.
Smart move. Willis, a powerful leaper, won the Class 4A triple jump title as a senior at the 1999 state meet, covering 37 feet, 7 inches. She also finished third in the long jump. As a junior, she placed second in both events.
Something good must be at work in the Willis family genes. Onnie's older sister, Tina, won the Miss Washington title in 1999 and competed at the Miss America pageant.
As a gymnast, Willis won her first competition, the Baby State, at age 7, made the junior national team in 1996 and was the junior Olympic national champion in all-around, vault and beam two years later.
At UCLA, she made first-team All-American in vault last year and set freshman school records in all-around, vault, bars and floor.
This year, as part of a talent-rich team that includes three former Olympians, she won all-around titles in four straight late-season meets. Teammate Mohini Bhardwaj stopped Willis' streak last week as the No. 1 Bruins edged fifth-ranked Georgia (the 1999 NCAA champion) in front of 3,738 spectators at Pauley Pavilion.
Bhardwaj, a seven-time first-team All-American, posted three perfect scores in four events. Her all-around mark of 39.975 points was the second highest in NCAA history.
"We have so much talent on this team," said Willis, who has posted three 10s so far in her college career. "The regionals (in two weeks) and NCAAs (April 19-21) are more important meets, but we still want to win the Pac-10, if only for bragging rights."
UCLA, 18-1, returns with nine athletes who competed during last year's championship run, plus three gymnasts who took part in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney - Americans Jamie Dantzscher (ranked No. 1 nationally on floor and bars) and Kristen Maloney (No. 3 on beam) plus Yvonne Tousek from Canada. Bhardwaj is the defending Pac-10 champ in all-around, vault and floor and the NCAA champion on bars.
Sixth-ranked Stanford includes two past Canadian Olympians on its roster, Lise Leveille (2000) and Jen Exaltacion (1996). Washington's Gharde Geldenhuys competed for Namibia in 2000. None earned medals.
Willis, ranked 11th nationally on vault and 13th on floor, hopes to do well for her 50-plus family members and friends in the crowd tomorrow. She says she would like to pursue track as well at UCLA, but the seasons overlap and gymnastics takes precedent.
"I enjoy both sports differently," said Willis, 20. "I like the team aspect of track, but I didn't want to give up gymnastics after training so long for it. You can only do it for so long. I can compete in track later in life."
• Washington (12-7-1) enters the meet with its highest ranking (No. 16) of the season. Stacy Wong ranks No. 25 nationally among all-around competitors and is 14th on bars. Lanna Apisukh posted a perfect 10 on vault last week during a four-team meet at Oregon State. Mandi Klug posted a 10 on floor earlier this season, making them the first Husky gymnasts to earn perfect scores in the same year. UW has five perfect marks in program history.
• Fox Sports Net will air the meet on a delayed basis next Friday at 8 p.m. and next Saturday at 12:30 p.m.