The Madeleine Brand Show

The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

SoCal gymnast Kyla Ross brings poise, nerves of steel to London Olympics

by Josie Huang | The Madeleine Brand Show

Kyla Ross prepares to practice her mat routine at the gym where she trains, Gym-Max, in Costa Mesa. Ross, 15, is part of a five-member women's team expected to take gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Julie Platner /KPCC

Inside Gym-Max Gymnastics in Costa Mesa, Calif., 5-year-olds are learning to tumble onto mats. Several feet away, older gymnasts are doing conditioning work on balance beams.

Then, a teenage girl strides onto the floor. She's 5-foot-2, taller than the other girls. Lean, muscular, with wide shoulders. Her dark hair is pulled back into a bun. At the sight of her, 10-year-old Sydney Halsey leans over and says to her friend.

"Kyla's here, pass it on."

That news spreads fast. The "Kyla" causing the stir is 15-year-old Kyla Ross of Aliso Viejo, the first student from Gym-Max to make it to the Olympics. She's part of the strongest U.S. women's team in recent memory with a great shot at beating its closest rivals, China, Russia and Romania.

Ross, who has been competing since age 5, says she's ready for the biggest meet of her life.

"It’s something that isn’t very easy to go out and perform in front of all these people on something as the beam where it's so skinny," Ross says. "So you definitely have to practice at that and being able to calm your nerves."

That self-control helped Ross win two U.S. junior championships and excel at the balance beam and uneven bars. What she also has going for her is extraordinary physical strength.

"When I was really young, they always used to have trouble having me sit down because I'd always try to fight them," Ross says laughing.

Her father, Jason Ross, who works for a recruitment company, agrees. "It would use all my effort to get her to sit in her car seat, and I'm a pretty big guy, a strong guy," Jason Ross said.

Jason Ross is 6'5", and a former athlete. He played college football and baseball in Hawaii, where he met his wife Kiana; that’s where they had Kyla.

"When she was born, we were like, 'Oh my God, she has triceps, she has quads hanging off her. What the heck's going on?,' Ross said. "And she was just super strong. I mean, at an early age, she was able to walk across the monkey bars, just hanging herself."

Baby Kyla's musculature wasn't the only striking thing about her. Her look reflects the multi-racialism of Hawaii. Her father is black and Japanese. Her mother is part-Filipina, part-Puerto Rican.

"We call it the quadruple effect," Jason Ross says.

Ross was just about a year old when the family left Hawaii for the mainland. Jason Ross went to play in the Atlanta Braves' farm system for six seasons. Kiana worked in the hotel industry. They had two more kids, Mckenna and Kayne.

Kyla, meanwhile, was channeling her energy into gymnastics classes. By the time she was 7, the family had settled in Southern California, near relatives. Ross enrolled in Gym-Max. The gym is run by husband-and-wife team Howie and Jenny Liang, who used to train members of China's gymnastics team.

Howie Liang, a cheerful spry man in his early 60s, watches Ross swing off the uneven bars. He doesn't speak much English, but it’s not an issue.

"Mostly everybody here understands what he's saying," Ross says. "If he uses hand motions, we understand what he's saying."

Howie says in Mandarin that when Ross first walked through his gym doors, she was just a cute kid, with a comically boxy frame, but he saw the Olympian in her. He says she has a lot of heart.

"Not only muscle," he said, pointing to his chest for emphasis. "A lot of power. Here power.”

He claps heartily as Ross comes down from the air and sticks her landing.

Ross makes it look effortless. Nancy Armour, who's covering Olympics gymnastics for the Associated Press, says it a lot of it has to do with Kyla's physique.

Unlike past U.S. champs Kerri Strugg and Shawn Johnson who have stockier, athletic builds, Kyra's, "got these long legs that seem to go on forever," Armour says. "It's almost like she looks similar to a ballet dancer."

Ross has some of the most difficult tricks in the book, Armour says. "But the way she performs you don't realize that because the way she performs, she's so graceful, she's so elegant," she says.

Armour adds that Ross also sticks out for another reason: her reserve. Take the moment when the five girls were named to the gymnastics team at the Olympic trials.

"Every other one of the team members was crying," Armour says. "They were so happy, they were thrilled and Kyla was just beaming. She doesn’t get overemotional."

Ross' dad says she keeps her feelings about the Olympics from her family, too. Ross explains that after practicing five to seven hours a day, she likes to leave the sport behind at the gym.

"I mean I definitely see myself as a normal girl," Ross says. "I definitely just am calm and relaxed that is something that is more my personality."

But even she can't help but get caught up in the commotion of the Olympics. After the Olympic trials, she went shopping with her family, and was repeatedly stopped by strangers.

"They were just like walking by and they just congratulated me," Ross says. "And I was like, 'How did you know?' And they said they watched it on TV. Me and my family just sort of like laughed because that's something that's has not really happened to me before. It's not like very common for a young girl to be famous so that definitely was really exciting."

A lot could change very quickly for Ross in the next few months. Gymnasts are among the most popular athletes at the Olympics, and many land endorsement deals. Gymnastics writer Nancy Armour says that with Kyla's talent and multicultural background, she'll have broad appeal.

At the moment, though, Ross isn't looking that far ahead. She's focused on the meet -- and the closing ceremony of the Olympics. That's when her beloved British boy band of the moment, One Direction is scheduled to perform.

"I don't really have a favorite but I think they're a good group together," she says with a laugh.

She does think Harry has the best voice, though. She will give you that.

With contributions from Raghu Manavalan

blog comments powered by Disqus

Enjoy The Madeleine Brand Show? Try KPCC’s other programs.

What's popular now on KPCC