LOS ANGELES - Even by the lofty standards of UCLA gymnastics, the team's 2016 freshmen stood out.
The group was one of the greatest collections of recruits in NCAA history, including two Olympic gold medalists and others with state, regional and national accolades.
One of the nine women, however, stood apart. Maria Caire's team biography had no record of a competitive career.
UCLA listed Caire as a past member of Pasadena-based Club Champion Gymnastics, but top gymnasts who trained at the club during the same period told The Times they had never seen her practice. There is no record of her participating in a meet for the club.
Caire, however, had something other aspiring collegiate gymnasts didn't: Her uncle was a close friend of UCLA's legendary coach, Valorie Kondos Field. In a book published last year, Kondos Field described the student's uncle as "one of my dearest friends." Property records show they owned a condominium together in the late 1990s.
Kondos Field, who led the school to seven NCAA team titles in 29 seasons before retiring in April, said the friendship had nothing to do with Caire's recruitment. The coach instead credited the student's character, work ethic and potential in the vault. Caire hasn't competed for UCLA because of medical issues but worked as a team manager the last two seasons, Kondos Field said.
"She has put in as much time to UCLA gymnastics as any one of her teammates," the coach said.
The nationwide college admissions scandal has revealed how some students with fake athletic resumes gained entry to elite universities through bribes to administrators or coaches. But the scandal also has renewed scrutiny of a more pervasive complaint in higher education: Applicants use influential connections to take advantage of the side door as athletic recruits despite lacking the accomplishments of their new teammates.
At many schools, coaches have wide leeway to fill their rosters with scholarship and nonscholarship recruits, who bypass the admission process used by regular students. The prospect of admission through athletic recruitment is even more attractive at elite colleges like UCLA, where just 14% of more than 110,000 applicants were accepted last year.
At least 18 students admitted as athletic recruits in recent years were children of coaches or administrators at the school or had close ties to them, according to a Times review of UCLA records and interviews. Some were well-regarded in their sports. Others had thin resumes compared with those of teammates.
Ken Weiner served as a senior associate athletic director, with responsibilities that included overseeing men's soccer. His son, Kevin, spent four seasons on the team's roster. He played five minutes in one regular-season game as a goalkeeper from 2007 through 2010, according to UCLA records. Although Weiner's school biography noted that he was an all-league player at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach, many teammates on the talent-packed roster were all-state selections, All-Americans or members of U.S. youth national teams.
Travis Martin, the youngest son of longtime UCLA men's tennis coach Billy Martin, wasn't ranked by TennisRecruiting.net, the go-to site for tracking the sport's college recruiting, coming out of Los Angeles Loyola High in 2013. The four other members of UCLA's freshman class that year did receive rankings and included the nation's top college recruit. Martin played in seven matches during four seasons on the team, according to UCLA records.
Julia Savage, the daughter of UCLA baseball coach John Savage, was admitted through track and field in 2013. Nathan Howard, the track and field coach at Los Alamitos High, which Julia attended, didn't recall her participating in the sport. There's no record of her competing at UCLA. An internal track and field team directory for her freshman year listed her as a manager; athletic department rules prohibit using the athlete admissions process for managers. UCLA wouldn't say when the rule took effect.
In 2014, UCLA's student newspaper quoted Kondos Field as saying she suggested the school's golf coach add the son of former Bruins gymnastics coach Jerry Tomlinson. He hired Kondos Field as an assistant coach at UCLA in 1983. Tomlinson's son, Cory, was listed on UCLA's golf roster for the 2010-11 season, though there is no record that he played. Joel Wittenberg, the golf coach since 2006 at Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo where Tomlinson attended, told The Times he had never heard of him. Cory Tomlinson worked as a UCLA gymnastics manager from 2010 through 2014.
In the aftermath of the college admissions scandal, UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero publicly defended the athletic admissions process, describing it as "among the most demanding and thorough in collegiate athletics."
Guerrero's youngest daughter, Kathryn, was admitted as a rowing recruit in 2004. Her UCLA team biography did not list a club rowing team. Several former UCLA athletic employees have privately questioned the circumstances of her admission, though it's common for athletes to join college rowing teams without previous experience in the sport.
Kevin Weiner, Travis Martin, Julia Savage, Cory Tomlinson and Kathryn Guerrero didn't respond to requests for comment.
"The application of every prospective student-athlete is processed the same way, regardless of whether he or she has a personal relationship within the university," UCLA spokesman Tod Tamberg said in a statement. He said the athletic director "does not play any role" in the admissions process for athletes.
Since 1998, UC Regents policy has barred fundraising considerations from influencing admissions. It also doesn't allow so-called legacy admits for relatives of alumni, but there is no specific policy about the use of the athletic admissions process for children or close associates of university employees.
Tamberg said UCLA's practice has been to notify the eight-member Student-Athlete Admissions Committee that must approve recruits about any family ties a prospective athlete has to university employees.
Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova who has studied and written about admissions in college athletics, said the use of the side door in athletic recruitment is a nationwide problem.
"It may not be the norm that mediocre athletes are given access to these so-called side doors, but it is more prevalent than we think," Eckstein said. "We generally associate sports, regardless of the level, with some form of meritocracy."
An internal UCLA investigation found in 2014 that a family pledged $100,000 to the athletic department in exchange for their daughter's admission as a nonscholarship track and field recruit. She became a team manager. The school requires that students admitted as nonscholarship athletes be "athletically qualified" and spend their first year in school on the team roster, not as managers.
Around the same time, Tamberg said, the athletic department "increased administrative oversight of the recruitment process." That included reviewing profiles of prospective recruits submitted to the athlete admissions committee for approval.
"The expectation has always been that UCLA coaches build their rosters with student-athletes that meet the academic requirements for admission to the university and are athletically qualified," Tamberg said in his statement.
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Maria Caire was recruited as a gymnast under the strengthened process.
Tamberg said UCLA's "gymnastics coaches believed that a combination of the student's athleticism and UCBC-level coaching would make her a valuable asset to the team" in the vault. Caire's parents, he said, hadn't donated to the school or pledged donations when she was recruited.
He said the school used its "multi-step evaluation process" to vet Caire, including unspecified staffers "viewing video of the student performing gymnastic skills" to verify her athletic ability. The Times requested the video, but Tamberg said the school couldn't locate it.
Caire declined to comment, saying Kondos Field "addressed all of these questions" from The Times about her gymnastics experience and recruitment to UCLA.
Her uncle, Paul Chiames, said he has been friends with Kondos Field for three decades and the two were roommates in the 1990s. He said his niece secured a spot on the UCLA team on her own merit because "she was a potentially strong vaulter." He added that she has been doing standing backflips since age 5.
A Times review of UCLA's gymnastics rosters over the last decade found that almost every team member had competed at Level 10, the highest in the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic program, or had extensive international experience. Only two U.S. gymnasts had less than Level 9 experience - one who competed at Level 7 and Caire, who had no competition record, according to MyMeetScores, a widely used clearinghouse for gymnastics results.
Among Caire's freshmen teammates were Madison Kocian, who won a team gold medal and an individual silver at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and Kyla Ross, who was a member of the "Fierce Five" U.S. team that won gold at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
UCLA's decision to also recruit someone with no competition record stood out to some college gymnastics observers at the time.
"I've never heard of a situation like that unless it was a Make-A-Wish-esque situation," said Elizabeth Grimsley, editor of College Gym News.
In Kondos Field's book, "Life Is Short, Don't Wait to Dance," she described a six-day-a-week training regimen for college hopefuls.
"The gymnast who makes it to college has banked the necessary 10,000 repetitions of a skill ... to be able to perform it anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances," Kondos Field wrote.
Asked by The Times about Caire's gymnastics experience, the coach wasn't sure how long she trained at Club Champion.
"She was very involved with school, church and a dance team through the church, and because of that she wasn't able to take gymnastics lessons on a consistent basis," Kondos Field said. "She had a lot of years to make up ... . I knew if she had the talent, we could develop it."
She said she learned about Caire through a phone call from Club Champion's owner. The owner, Zak Johnson, said he didn't have a clear recollection of making such a call but "talks up" every senior at the club and "could have recommended her to UCLA."
Johnson, who doubles as the public-address announcer for UCLA gymnastics meets, said Caire never competed for the club but took private lessons and participated in several evening programs. He estimated she trained at the gym for a year and a half - perhaps every other day. In a follow-up call, Johnson estimated she trained for two years. He believed she could help UCLA in the vault.
"I have no idea how she got into UCLA," Johnson said. "It was a surprise to me for sure."
Johnson said several coaches worked with Caire at Club Champion, including Ivan Bereznyakov. When contacted by The Times, Bereznyakov, who no longer works at the club, said he had never heard of Caire.
Emily Carr, who competed at Club Champion for a decade, reached Level 10, graduated from high school in 2017 and is part of Cornell's gymnastics team, said she knew of Caire from the neighborhood but never saw her at the club.
Another former Club Champion gymnast recalled searching in vain for information about Caire after noticing her on UCLA's roster. "We tried looking her up and it was as if she didn't exist," said Lauren Helgeson, who reached Level 9 while competing for the club through 2016.
On current and archived versions of the websites for Club Champion and its booster club, Caire isn't on rosters or lists of recruitable athletes or alumni who competed in college.
During an interview with The Times, Kondos Field repeatedly compared Caire to Ariana Berlin, who joined UCLA as a nonscholarship athlete in the fall of 2005 and became a four-time All-American.
However, Berlin competed extensively before college, winning the all-around title at the Western Nationals in 1999, reaching Level 10 and training for the elite level before a car accident forced her away from the sport in 2001. Berlin's journey from Olympic hopeful to accident victim to standout gymnast at UCLA became a made-for-television movie released in 2015, "Full Out."
Kondos Field said routine preseason medical tests in 2016 found a condition that prevented Caire from being cleared to train or compete. She was eventually cleared at an unspecified point before the season ended, but the coach said she then developed an additional health problem.
"She said, 'I'm too stressed out. I can't keep moving forward with this,'" Kondos Field said. "I immediately put her in a managerial role. She's been working her (butt) off, to be real honest, ever since."