As a former ballerina with no competitive gymnastics experience, Valorie Kondos Field took an unconventional path to becoming coach of the UCLA women’s gymnastics team and guiding the Bruins to seven NCAA titles. Her retirement won’t be conventional, either.
Kondos Field, 59, announced Thursday she will step aside after the 2019 season. She began as an assistant coach and choreographer in 1983 and became head coach in 1991, creating an atmosphere that nurtures flare and self-expression. UCLA has drawn gymnasts from many national and Olympic teams, among them 2012 U.S. gold medalist Kyla Ross and 2016 U.S. gold and silver medalist Madison Kocian. In addition to seven national titles, Kondos Field’s Bruins teams have won 19 NCAA regional titles and 14 Pac-12 titles. Her successor was not announced, but associate coach and UCLA alumnus Chris Waller figures to be the top candidate.
Kondos Field has been a critic of the stifling culture in elite gymnastics that allowed the abuses of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to continue, and she has said she’d be willing to help USA Gymnastics rebuild the trust that was shattered by the abuse that led to Nassar being sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison.
Already among her projects are an urban version of the classic “Nutcracker” ballet; producing a movie based on the career of UCLA gymnast Christine Peng-Peng Lee (which is a sequel to the 2015 movie “Full Out,” about UCLA gymnast Ariana Berlin); bringing to life a Broadway show about environmental issues: and creating and co-teaching a UCLA course on the late John Wooden.
The course on Wooden is close to her heart because he was a mentor and friend to her and her husband, Bobby Field, a former UCLA assistant football coach and athletic administrator. Her book, “Life is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance,” contains an opening note by Wooden’s daughter Nan and will be published on Oct. 2 by Hachette. “I’ve been in talks with the university for quite a few years about being a co-professor for a course on John Wooden and I really, really feel that’s very, very important to keep Coach’s legacy alive,” Kondos Field said in a phone interview. “So I’m excited to do that because I haven’t had the time to be able to do that before.”
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said he accepted Kondos Field’s resignation “with incredibly mixed emotions.” He added: “Val embodies everything you look for in a head coach: She builds genuine relationships with her student-athletes; she’s a tremendous mentor, not only in the gym, but also in life; and of course, we all know, her teams have been incredibly successful. In winning, most importantly, she fosters this success the right way, by creating a culture of positivity and growth that has elevated the UCLA gymnastics program to new heights, among the nation’s most elite.”
Kondos Field, who has also choreographed shows for Sea World and the San Diego Zoo while coaching at UCLA, said she learned to establish priorities after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.
“I had this realization that there are so many things I enjoy doing, in order to find the time to do them, I needed to take the things out of my life that really weren’t fueling me creatively,” she said. “I don’t watch TV anymore. I don’t spend one moment of my day in negativity or drama or in judgment. I don’t spend any time in anything that is negative because that’s not fueling everything else I want to do. I have always said going through breast cancer only changed everything in my life for the better and that was a big part of it, that I choose to spend the minutes of my days differently now.”
She is sure the time is right for her to retire, but that didn’t make it easy to tell members of the team. “It was the hardest thing I can ever remember doing in my life,” she said. “I know that even though my life is going to be filled I know that I will never have this many close relationships on a daily basis and that’s what’s just gutting me. I shed more tears than I think I’ve shed in my entire life. This was infinitely harder than going through breast cancer.”
UCLA will begin its 2019 season Jan. 4-6 at Pauley Pavilion.