Emi Watterson did not set out to become a social activist. She wasn’t trying to make a statement. The Cal senior merely wanted to do something nearly impossible: Score a perfect 10 in her gymnastics event.
Against UCLA last Saturday. Watterson became just the second Golden Bear to score 10 in the uneven bars, only the fourth to do so in any event.
In the days since, the native of Brisbane, Australia has received attention she never imagined.
Apparently because she completed her 22-second routine while wearing a mask.
Here is Watterson's perfect routine:
People magazine wrote about her performance. The Today Show mentioned it. So did NBC10 in Philadelphia, as did the website PopSugar.com.
In each case, the hook to the story was that Watterson donned a protective mask, the kind most of us have been wearing the past year to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of gymnasts in NCAA do get 10s. I guess the difference with mine was I did it was with a mask on. That got a lot of attention,” Watterson said. “The mask aspect wasn’t really something I was thinking about. I didn’t realize it was going to be a huge topic.
“It was surprising and pretty exciting. I kept getting messages from people saying, `I saw you here.' So it was pretty cool.”
She wore the mask because Cal’s gymnasts all were required to do so as part of the protocols implemented when they were allowed to return to practice last October. It quickly became comfortable, and there wasn’t really any choice.
“Our athletes train with their masks on every single day,” Cal co-coach Liz Crandall-Howell said. “We are so used to them being in masks, we forget sometimes they even have masks on.”
Gymnasts in the floor exercise — which is longer in duration than other events and makes greater cardio-vascular demands — sometimes compete without wearing masks. Watterson said it took her some time to adapt on the balance beam but wearing a mask during a bars routine was not difficult.
Then social media took up the topic after her perfect score.
“In the beginning it was never like, `Oh, I want to make a statement by wearing a mask.’ It was just comfortable.” she said. “Now that I think about it and after getting all the attention it’s gotten us, it’s like, `OK, maybe I was setting a good example.’ “
Not everyone agreed.
“Scrolling through the comments, it was a bit of a rollercoaster. Some people were rooting for me and there were others that were completely against it,” she said. “It’s expected. The whole mask thing is quite controversial, at least in the U.S. I try to focus on the positive comments. It doesn’t matter how big or small. It feels good to know that I have an impact on the world.”
Her routine certainly had an impact on those closest to her, starting with her coaches and teammates.
Watterson said her initial reaction to the score was “shock,” but she was mobbed by delirious teammates. “I immediately just started crying with joy,” she said. “Finally all my hard work has paid off.”
Crandall-Howell talks in the video below about how she anticipated Watterson's perfect score. The team’s bar rotation already had put together a series of dynamite score that eventually added up to 49.825, tying an NCAA record.
“The momentum leading up to her routine, you could feel the energy in the building, the excitement building around what the rest of the team was doing.” Crandall-Howell said.
“I knew with the way the rest of the rotation was going if she did her best bar routine in that moment that the judges were going to reward her. It was a fantastic moment to see all of that come together. Emi’s moment was fantastic, but the team’s moment was as well.”
Watterson’s mother, Linda, has moved to Berkeley to be near her daughter, although she still cannot attend meets in person. Her father, Robert, still is back home and got the big news directly from his daughter.
“I called him when he was driving to the grocery story. He was so excited he started crying a little bit,” Watterson said. “He called me an hour later and said, `It’s taken me an hour to stop crying.’ It felt really good.”
The Bears close out their home schedule Sunday against Washington, then prepare for the Pac-12 Championships on Saturday, March 20 at West Valley, Utah.
As the nation’s sixth-ranked team, the Bears currently are positioned to participate in the NCAA regionals on April 3.
Cover photo of Emi Watterson by Peter Fukumae, Dakine Pics
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo