Valorie Kondos Field nearly quit while she was behind. Nearly.
Her first year as the women’s gymnastics coach at UCLA in 1991 didn’t go as planned. Neither did the second. Frustrated, she found herself preparing to tell senior associate athletic director Judith Holland that Holland’s unusual move to hire a head coach with no background in the sport had backfired — Kondos Field grew up dancing and spent eight years as an assistant coach with the Bruins focusing strictly on choreography.
On her way to Holland’s office, Kondos Field stopped at a student bookstore. On one of the shelves she stumbled across legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden’s definition of success, which he described as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
“I must’ve read it 20 times and a light bulb went off,” Kondos Field said. “I couldn’t fake being a gymnastics coach because I didn’t know anything about gymnastics. I had to be true to me. Who is me? I know what it’s like to work through pain. I know what it’s like to set a goal and prepare mentally, emotionally and physically. When I was standing in the wings (before dancing), I was calm and confident. Isn’t that what I’m needing to do with these gymnasts?”
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Wooden’s words gave her a vision she has carried through nearly three decades of sustained excellence.
By 1997, the Bruins were NCAA champions. Six more national titles have followed during Kondos Field’s tenure, one which will come to an end next spring. She is retiring following the conclusion of the 2018-19 season to focus on outside projects that range from producing an urban version of the Nutcracker ballet to helping develop a sequel to the gymnastics movie “Full Out” that will be based on the life of former Bruin Christine Peng-Peng Lee.
“There’s just so much on my plate,” said the 59-year-old Kondos Field, who is releasing a self-help book in early October. “It’s time to take the scary plunge and do it without the life preserver.”
Kondos Field actually made the decision to step away in 2019 two years ago. The hard part was not telling anyone. She kept the circle small “knowing I could always back out.” One of the few she let in was then-sophomore Katelyn Ohashi, who was in the midst of the difficult transition from elite gymnastics to the collegiate level.
“We were talking about living life joyfully, that it’s a choice,” Kondos Field said. “I knew me trusting her with this secret would mean a lot to her. She didn’t tell a soul. It was a badge of honor for her.”
And an insight into an approach that has worked so well for more than a generation. The woman known simply as “Miss Val” lets her assistants handle the gymnastics side of things. She handles the dance portion of their routines and the elusive pursuit of life balance inside and outside the gym.
In the process she’s created a program that’s become a haven for high-profile gymnasts trying to navigate the difficult transition from competing internationally — where the focus is on individual development — to a true team environment. The list of current or former Bruins with Olympic medals tucked away somewhere is long and distinguished and would be even longer if current Olympic champion Simone Biles hadn’t opted to turn professional after committing to UCLA.
Kondos Field insists there is no secret. Her message to recruits is largely the same regardless of pedigree: come here and let’s have a good time.
“The competing and winning part (of elite gymnastics), the whole thing has gotten turned upside down because of money, because of winning,” she said. “Can we flip this back the other way?”
It’s a mantra that resonates far beyond the competition floor.
“Val embodies everything you look for in a head coach: she builds genuine relationships with her student-athletes,” UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said. “She’s a tremendous mentor.”
Ohashi considers her journey as proof. She reached out to Kondos Field when her elite career ended due mostly to health issues. Ohashi arrived at UCLA trying to reconcile the difficult end to her Olympic dream while rediscovering her love for the sport. Kondos Field gently helped nudge Ohashi forward.
“When you’re a gymnast, you’re supposed to fit these standards, fall in line,” Ohashi said. “Most gymnasts or elite gymnasts, I feel like they don’t have a lot of personality. They give cookie-cutter answers. She pushes us to go out of that boundary and speak our truth.”
An ethos that has helped Kondos Field guide the Bruins with style to a 516-120-3 record. Kondos Field regularly develops routines packed with moves pulled right from the latest music videos, an approach designed to embrace the “artistic” side of artistic gymnastics while also drawing spectators to Pauley Pavilion.
“In order to thrive, we have to put butts in seats,” she said. “We’ve got to win and got to be entertaining.”
Asked why she chose to reveal her plans before the season instead of after, and Kondos Field pointed to a meet next March that will serve as a homecoming of sorts for the hundreds of women she has coached through the years, “even the ones ticked off at me.”
Then the season will end — possibly with an eighth national crown — and Kondos Field, who survived a bout with breast cancer in 2015, will get on with her life’s work.
She’s been an outspoken critic of USA Gymnastics in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal surrounding disgraced former national team doctor Larry Nassar — whose hundreds of victims include current UCLA volunteer assistant coach and 2011 world champion Jordyn Wieber and current Bruins/Olympic gold medalists Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian. But Kondos Field has no intention thrusting herself into consideration to become the embattled organization’s next president.
Still, she has every intention to remain connected to the sport she has grown to love and help bridge the painful gulfs that have emerged in Nassar’s wake.
“We’ve lost our royalty, we’ve lost our history,” she said. “We’ve lost our family. We need to reconnect and need to get back together.”
A mission that will continue long after Kondos Field steps away from the program she built, one whose unique approach mirrors that of its unique leader.
“UCLA gymnastics sticks out,” she said. “I’m not saying better. Just different.”
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