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Q&A with Justin Howell and Elisabeth Crandall-Howell of Cal Women's Gymnastics

Updated: May 24, 2021

Cal women’s gymnastics has continued its rise as a top 10 program this season. Inside Gymnastics Magazine recognized the Golden Bears as one of the teams on the rise on the national scene.

No. 9 Cal tied an NCAA record on the uneven bars and set a program record all-around score en route to a 198.050-196.925 win over No. 10 UCLA on March 6 at Haas Pavilion. The Bears tied for the third-best score by any team in the nation this year –– putting them in the national championship conversation.

Please consider a gift to women’s gymnastics in the Roll On campaign to support exceptional student-athlete experiences. Thank you to everyone who has made gifts to the campaign to support your favorite programs and Cal initiatives.


Co-head coaches Justin Howell and Elisabeth Crandall-Howell share insights on their team’s season.

What have been the keys to the team’s success so far this season?

“One of the biggest keys to our success this year is that everyone is so grateful for every single day and opportunity. With the season cut short due to COVID last year, and all of the team being apart from each other for so long, it really gave every person a different perspective. The gratitude that comes with each day, knowing that tomorrow is not a guarantee, has shown up in the way the team continues to take advantage of every opportunity to challenge themselves.”

How does the program’s #OneDayBetter mantra correlate with the team’s rise into a top 10 program?

“The One Day Better mantra is more than gymnastics. This mantra is a way of thinking that pushes you to be intentional each and every day about self-awareness and improvement. One Day Better is first individually focused and without comparison to one another. It pushes each individual to explore ways that they can improve and encourages self-reflection. The team holds each other accountable to getting one day better because they sincerely care about each other and know that the things they achieve together are even more rewarding than anything they do alone. As each individual seeks to continually improve, success becomes a byproduct of the group. When everyone on your team is committed to this way of thinking, the success of the team rises exponentially, and the feelings that the team members have when they know that they are all committed to this growth is so rewarding. The members of the Cal women’s gymnastics team have consistently bought into this mission, and the results have shown in their steady improvement and climb to a top 10 program.”

The Cal Benefit Cup plays an important role in the team meeting its annual fund goals, but it was cancelled this year due to the pandemic. What are some of the team’s funding priorities the Cal community will be supporting with a gift to the Roll On campaign to support women’s gymnastics?

“The Cal Benefit Cup is our major fundraiser each year. This event helps us to pay for many of the expenses in our operating budget and also fund some things that are not in our budget, but that are essential to our team performing at optimal levels. We have regularly used this fundraiser to help with equipment needs, bus travel, additional nutritional supplementation, and individual sports psychology. The replacement of major pieces of gymnastics equipment is fairly expensive and sometimes unpredictable. More often than not, a piece of equipment will break or fail and needs to be replaced immediately. The Cal Benefit Cup has allowed us to be able to have some flexibility in managing these needs.”

Without fans in the stands, how does the team get fired up to compete before a competition?

“One of the ways that our team has brought energy into each competition is by making individual cheer cards. They make decorative messages on the cheer cards and hold them up throughout the competition. The cards are different for each meet, with awesome decorations and motivational sayings each week. This has been a really fun way to keep everyone connected. We also always try to create our own energy and stay in our Bear bubble. This has always been our focus, and this has not changed with the absence of fans in the stands.”

Are there other challenges for your student-athletes performing at their peak with COVID restrictions in place?

“Our student-athletes have managed some major adjustments in their training this season. Most notably, the team started training mid October. In a typical year, the pre-season starts at the end of August. The training plan had to be totally different, and fairly basic, before we could really start putting routines together. With the many COVID restrictions in place, their day-to-day schedule has been much different than in a regular year. The team trains in masks every day and has adjusted really well to this requirement. They have also spent much of the year doing strength and conditioning outside. Due to cohort sizes and restrictions, our training time per week has been shortened. Despite all of these changes, the team has made great progress and has managed very well. If you have watched any of our competitions, you have probably noticed that many of our athletes have competed with their masks on. This is not a requirement but personal preference. The athletes train with the masks on during every practice, so we wanted to make sure that they were completely comfortable in competition.

Many things about COVID are difficult, but I would say the most missed experiences for the student-athletes is the time that they would regularly spend together in the locker room, in the training room, and in the car to and from practice. The bonds that are created from these day- to-day interactions cannot be underestimated. The team has been very creative and intentional about creating situations that continue to build strong bonds with one another in as many ways as possible, given their current social restrictions.”

It takes a team effort to excel as the Bears have done this season. Talk about the growth of senior Kyana George and sophomore Nevaeh DeSouza as two of the team’s leaders in 2021.

“Nevaeh DeSouza and Kyana George, along with Maya Bordas, have been incredibly consistent and crucial to our success as all-around competitors. All three of these student-athletes bring a great work ethic to practice every day. It isn’t easy training and competing in the all-around every single day and every weekend. It takes a great deal of mental toughness to manage that training load. Nevaeh and Kyana are currently the number 12 and 16 all-arounders in the country. This is incredibly impressive, especially because they have accumulated these rankings with only five competitions. Most of the other all-arounders have had at least eight competitions to accumulate their national-qualifying scores. Andrea (Andi) Li is also looking to add the all-around in the coming weeks, and we expect her to jump right into the national conversation, as well. Andi is making her mark as one of the most exciting freshmen in the country. As mentioned earlier, the entire team has risen to the challenge of the year by approaching each day with sincere gratitude to be able to play the sport that they love and to be able to share that with each other. I believe that this is the reason that everyone on our team has shown such growth this season.”

The team’s rise on the national scene has also correlated with tremendous success in the classroom with the Bears posting the highest team GPA in program history over the last two semesters, punctuated by a 3.454 mark last fall. How does the team balance athletic and academic success at Cal?

“The team has consistently been performing better and better in the classroom. The team sets its own goals for their academics, and they take the time to praise one another for their accomplishments. One of the things they have done in the past two years to maintain a culture of academic excellence is to recognize one another for academic accomplishments. When someone does well on an assignment or quiz, they are encouraged to share this with the entire team, so that everyone can celebrate that accomplishment. The team also sets specific goals for the team GPA together. This helps everyone stay committed to maintaining a focus on continued improvement.”


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