Margzetta Frazier wondered if she would ever get back to being the gymnast she was before.
Her ankle injury was so severe that surgery was discussed. She kept competing on it for UCLA and her scores on bars remained among the best on the team, but every dismount was “agony.” She wanted to get back to the gymnast who competed all-around at the highest levels like she did as a member of the U.S. national team.
After the pandemic cut her season short and Frazier returned home to New Jersey, the junior realized that getting back to her old self wasn’t possible. She had a better option.
“I’m not the gymnast I used to be,” Frazier said. “I’m a completely new and improved version that does so much more than gymnastics.”
Frazier is only beginning to scratch her potential outside of the gym, and that has propelled her to her greatest heights as a Bruin. After reaching viral fame with a Janet Jackson floor routine that earned a FaceTime with the pop icon herself, she is emerging as a voice for racial equality in gymnastics while also promoting the importance of mental health.
Even with all her outside interests, Frazier earned first-team All-America honors on bars this season while competing in the all-around regularly for the first time in her career.
Frazier’s growth typifies the development that UCLA coach Chris Waller hopes all his gymnasts can achieve.
“Everybody should have a passion to be great at something outside of gymnastics and academics to excel at all three. … That’s the same with Marz,” Waller said. “Even though it takes more time, it fills their soul and their need to be growing in different ways and it just elevates everything they do.”
Entering this weekend’s NCAA regional in Morgantown, W. Va., Frazier has competed on every event in every meet. Her 36 competitive routines are more than any other Bruin this year.
No. 13 UCLA must finish in the top two in four-team regional meets on Friday and Saturday to advance to the NCAA championships. The eight-team national meets take place April 16-17 in Texas.
The regional meets — all streamed on ESPN3 — are sure to highlight Frazier’s made-for-TV personality. Choreography in her floor routine is straight out of a Jackson music video. She sends teammates into fits by putting dance moves that double as inside jokes into her beam routine. After she stuck her bars dismount at the Pac-12 championships, where she won the event title, she elbow dropped the mat like a professional wrestler jumping from the top rope.
The antics are nothing new for Frazier, who has been pushing boundaries in the infamously buttoned-up gymnastics world for years. In 2018, at the Birmingham World Cup, Frazier finished second in the all-around and celebrated during her floor routine by whipping her fist through the air after sticking her last tumbling pass.
The rare sight of pure emotion during a routine at an elite meet may have caused some purists to shake their heads, but Waller loved it.
“It provided a window into what could be at that level of gymnastics,” Waller said. “Why can’t it be that? Why can’t it be joyful? Why can’t you express yourself in that genuine way on that stage as well as one in Pauley?”
Scoring differences that value high volume skills and difficulty in elite gymnastics are at the root of why Olympic routines don’t feature the energetic dance breaks celebrated at UCLA. But the differences also rely on the sport’s strict culture, Waller said, where decades of classical, ballet-style routines have become the standard. Most women who turn into Olympic stars start competing in the junior Olympic and elite levels as pre-teens. Developing the confidence and maturity to express themselves while defying the norm take time.
Frazier, the oldest of four athletic siblings, didn’t begin elite gymnastics until 14. She was a late bloomer who played soccer in addition to gymnastics early on. She had no technique, only raw talent and an energetic personality.
In gymnastics-crazed corners of the internet, Frazier was critiqued for not fitting the mold. In 2017, the year she was named to the U.S. national team, Frazier came across a comment that said her body was “too thick for gymnastics.” She was strong but couldn’t execute the skills with a “dancer’s elegance.”
“I think when you have a very slender physique or a little girl body, you look better in gymnastics,” the comment continued.
Frazier had achieved one of her top goals to only be picked apart by an anonymous voice on the internet. It upset her at first. Then she flipped it around. She would not give critics the satisfaction of relevancy by succumbing to their negative comments.
“They’re just ignorant internet people,” Frazier said. “The world is so big. I’m so much more than gymnastics and I’m proud of myself for what I do.”
Outside of the gym, Frazier writes and sings her own music. She hopes to release her R&B songs when name, image and likeness legislation passes. She is also a member of UCLA’s Black Student Athlete Alliance, which advocates for racial equality on campus, and the Pac-12’s G-PAC, a group that promotes diversity and inclusion in gymnastics.
The wide range of hobbies seems perfectly suited for someone who relishes being a jill-of-all-trades, but it can be overwhelming, Frazier admits. The weight of it can come crashing down in a wave of anxiety. It can make her feel nauseous, disrupt her sleep or keep her from eating.
As a freshman Frazier tackled problems with the mindset of an elite gymnast who tried to power through issues alone. Now being able to communicate when she needs help is one of her biggest areas of growth.
“The No. 1 thing is it’s OK to admit that you’re not feeling OK,” Frazier said.
The junior’s emotional strength amid a difficult year is her greatest asset to the Bruins, Waller said.
“In spite of life being tougher in COVID and because of racial injustice, she somehow gets the work done,” the coach said. “She just brings it every single week, every time.”
When the lights come on, Frazier is unflappable. Her wide smile is quickly replaced with a fierce glare when she steps on the floor. Performing, in any form, is her specialty.
For now it is on the gymnastics floor, where her dance moves earned praise from millions, including Jackson. Next, it could be on YouTube where she can upload her musical performances. She may hit a stage with poetry or comedy.
“I have a feeling like that’s not going to be my only time,” Frazier said of her viral performance. “There’s going to be more than one time for me to say what I want to say and have people hear it.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.