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UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field enjoys one last joyful dance

UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field enjoys one last joyful dance
UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field leads former Bruins gymnasts around Pauley Pavilion while dancing during her retirement ceremony in March. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Dressed in flowing black slacks and a shimmery black shirt, she danced, clapping and bouncing to the beat. She clasped hands with people in the seats above her, compelling them to join in as “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake blared overhead.

Soon, whole sections of the arena moved with her.

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The start of an NCAA regional semifinal gymnastics meet was moments away, and No. 2-ranked UCLA was in Ann Arbor, Mich. But its coach looked right at home.

Just off center stage. Dancing. Smiling. Connecting with the music and the people around her.

Per usual, Valorie Kondos Field seemed carefree — at a time she had every reason to be feeling pressure.

UCLA was about to take another important step toward defending the national title it won last season, and the Bruins wanted to send their coach out with another championship. Kondos Field, whose teams have won seven national titles in her 29 years at the helm, is retiring after this season.

Coaches, like athletes, rarely go out on top. But Kondos Field, 59, appears to be the exception. UCLA has been dominant all season — her gymnasts have 21 perfect scores of 10, more than double of any other college team — and her pending departure has raised the stakes for each performance.

UCLA won the regional semifinal, securing one of eight team spots in the national championship meet Friday and Saturday in Fort Worth. Oklahoma, which led last year until the final event and narrowly defeated the Bruins in a dual meet this season, is formidable competition. A few more 10s would help, but the coach teaches her gymnasts to strive for excellence rather than perfection.

“I develop superheroes,” she likes to say.

Maybe that’s why goodbye has been so difficult. For so long, no matter how many times she practiced in her head saying it — this will be my last season with UCLA gymnastics — she couldn’t. Not to her husband, Bobby Field; not to herself in the mirror, or on her drive home from work or in her diary. She nicked quotation marks on the page instead.

“Imagine going to work every single day and being inspired by the people that you are surrounded by,” Kondos Field said earlier this season. “Imagine going to work every single day … and within the first five minutes you have 20 hugs. People say, ‘Good morning, Miss Val!’

“That’s what I’m choosing to give up.”

(Rahul Mukherjee / Los Angeles Times)

::

The glass sliding doors of the UCLA practice gym were open, letting in soft sunlight from a courtyard where students lifted weights one morning this week. From the doorway, Kondos Field studied gymnasts practicing beam routines.

The Bruins were scattered about, some drilling with coaches, others training independently. While working, they shared laughter and quiet conversation.

While gymnastics can be rapt in the pursuit of perfection, Kondos Field prefers a relaxed practice. There is a difference between fun and joy, she says, between perfection and excellence. She doesn’t bark orders. Often, she watches quietly, giving one-on-one feedback.

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When athletes peak, the coach said, “they’re not super serious, rigid, stone. They are in that very narrow lane of excellence that they’re in command of it, and in that command of it … you see their spirits soar.

“My goal is to coach them up to be in that zone as often as possible. So why would I want to take the joy out of it?”

UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field blows on the finger of gymnast Gracie Kramer she injured her nail during practice at Pauley Pavilion in March.
UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field blows on the finger of gymnast Gracie Kramer she injured her nail during practice at Pauley Pavilion in March. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Before UCLA hired Kondos Field as an assistant in 1983, she was a ballet dancer with no background in gymnastics or any other organized sport. Born in Sacramento, her father was a painter, her mother a hairdresser. She was first exposed to gymnastics when she took a job playing piano music to accompany floor routines at a local club.

As she learned more about the sport, she became a gymnastics choreographer. But then her career as a dancer took off and she moved to Washington to join the Washington Ballet.

One stage prepared her for another.

Kondos Field urges the Bruins to smile on balance beam, approach the vault runway with a confident strut and make eye contact with the audience during their floor exercises. The approach offers no guaranteed benefit to a gymnast’s score. But as a dancer, Kondos Field fell in love with performing, with being enveloped in rhythm. She wants her athletes to experience that feeling too.

She has embraced unconventional approaches. Her gymnasts take personality tests and self-defense classes; they hold trivia and public speaking competitions. Some of the pursuits are more successful than others, but the goal is always the same — personal growth.

“The No. 1 thing I admire about Val’s character is that she is fearful of literally nothing,” associate head coach Chris Waller said. “She has no fear of failure. It’s not something that is in her vocabulary.”

Among her mentors was the late John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach. One of Wooden’s books defined success as being your best self, not winning, and that approach helped Kondos Field stay the course when the team struggled her first two seasons. She grew close with Wooden after her husband, a former UCLA assistant football coach and associate athletic director , invited the coach to dinner one night in 1998.

Wooden sparked another turning point for Kondos Field, boosting the confidence she had in her developing coaching style, when they did an interview together in the mid-2000s. A reporter remarked that Kondos Field was becoming another Wooden. Blasphemy! Kondos Field thought. She was about to say as much when Wooden interjected.

“Why would she want to be another John Wooden,” she recalled him saying, “when she could be a great Valorie Kondos Field?”

::

(Rahul Mukherjee / Los Angeles Times)

“You need to pedal faster,” Kondos Field shouted from the back of a bike taxi whizzing through New York City traffic.

Sitting beside her and their shopping bags, UCLA gymnasts Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian howled with laughter. An appointment loomed and Kondos Field loathes being late. With no time to wait for a cab, she had hailed a passing bike taxi, calling for Ross and Kocian to join her.

And hey, could you take the sidewalks?

The trio took a last-minute mall trip because Ross and Kocian packed the wrong colors for television. The next day, the UCLA stars would come forward as survivors on “CBS This Morning,” joining more than 150 women who accused former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.

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Asked for a favorite memory of Kondos Field, Kocian and Ross both chose that trip to New York last August. When Kondos Field had been asked to join them, she agreed without hesitation. Throughout the trip, she made sure they had everything they needed and made certain they were ready to speak. The frantic bike adventure took their minds off things, as did long conversations that had nothing to do with gymnastics.

“I didn’t realize it meant that much to them,” Kondos Field said. “Because to me, they’re both such amazing young women, I wouldn’t have imagined that they would need my comfort and support.”

UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field, left, hugs UCLA gymnast Kate Richardson during the 2003 NCAA championships.
UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field, left, hugs UCLA gymnast Kate Richardson during the 2003 NCAA championships. (Nati Harnik / Associated Press)

Since survivors of Nassar began speaking out, several UCLA alumni among them, Kondos Field has criticized USA Gymnastics. She wrote in a blog post that the organization created a “culture of abuse” that enabled Nassar.

“It’s so obvious how this happened,” Kondos Field said of Nassar’s abuse. “We put winning, which equates to money, above human beings. The very children we were supposed to protect.”

Jordyn Wieber, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist who is a UCLA volunteer assistant, said many elite gymnasts develop under coaches who focus solely on the sport, to the detriment of the person.

“Like you’re a robot who does gymnastics, and that’s your job,” Wieber said. “But what Miss Val does really well is she’s a great coach, but she coaches the whole person, and not just the gymnast.”

Kondos Field takes an interest in her athletes outside of gymnastics, asking about their hopes and dreams. She encourages community service, and each team member gets three personal days per academic quarter when she can miss practice if she needs time to herself, no questions asked.

“It’s more important to develop trust with them than to dictate how they act and what they say,” Kondos Field said. “Because if you do that, then they will only be compliant. They won’t be truthful.”

She paused, then added: “I don’t know of one superhero that’s compliant.”

::

From the Pacific Ocean to bustling Los Angeles neighborhoods, she had a panoramic view from the windows.

After Kondos Field was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, she’d sit in a cream-colored recliner stationed in a large, open room on the sixth floor of a Santa Monica building and receive chemotherapy. She dubbed the place, “my chemo spa.”

“If you go to a massage … your body feels better,” Kondos Field said. “I was going to get chemotherapy to make my body better, to give me more days. How cool was that? So I used it … as my spa time.”

The time was used to reflect, and to plan for when she healed.

She made a bucket list: agree to speaking engagements she’d been too busy for; produce a show encouraging people to care for the environment. She conceptualized her book, “Life Is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance,” which published last October. She began writing an urban “Nutcracker,” a modern take on the classic ballet that incorporates Parkour, skateboarding, hip-hop and other dance styles. (A production company that specializes in live entertainment theater is producing itand has hired her to choreograph and direct other shows.)

“I realized that I wasn’t gonna die from my breast cancer,” Kondos Field said. “I also realized that we all have an expiration date. I just didn’t know when mine was.”

Her retirement is from coaching, not from work. For years, she has choreographed live shows for Sea World. She wants to turn her autobiography into a children’s book, and has been approached about writing a second book. She is in discussion with producers about developing a film based on her life, or based on UCLA’s championship 2018 season, and is assisting with the development of “Full Out 2,” a movie about UCLA alumna Christine Peng-Peng Lee.

As Kondos Field began pursuing those projects, she felt inspired. More inspired, she realized, than she did coaching.

She decided some of her passions should no longer be hobbies. After surviving breast cancer, “I’m giving myself permission to pursue them,” she said.

She met with UCLA athletic officials, and they agreed she would stay three more years.

That span is now up.

UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field reacts as the Utah State gymnastics team honors her during a retirement ceremony at Pauley Pavilion in March.
UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field reacts as the Utah State gymnastics team honors her during a retirement ceremony at Pauley Pavilion in March. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I know this is the right time,” Kondos Field said. “And there has not been one moment that I have questioned my decision.”

At first, other people did.

Her team was cresting, churning out performances that went viral over social media and attracting crowds to Pauley Pavilion larger than that of the men’s basketball team. Why walk away now?

But over time, the people close to her have come around.

“I think there’s a whole other side to her that she hasn’t been really exploring,” former Bruins gymnast Lena Pierson said, “because she’s been a coach at UCLA.”

The team was told during a camp the Bruins attend each fall before classes begin. When her gymnasts and staff entered a meeting room, they found Kondos Field sitting in a circle of empty folding chairs, already sobbing. Some, fearing the worst, worried her cancer had returned. No one spoke.

Finally, the coach uttered aloud what she had long rehearsed in her head: This will be my last season with UCLA gymnastics.

Once she explained, the women began to share memories, putting to words the joy Kondos Field brought them, the companionship she gave. When that got too emotional, the conversation turned to the upcoming season and their goals of reaching excellence and cherishing every moment along the way.

“We’ve talked about the fact that I don’t need to win one more championship to feel great about what I’ve done in this world of athletics,” Kondos Field said. “Yes, winning is always the goal. But the goal for a coach, and I feel the goal for a student-athlete, should be leaving with no regrets. Because if you only place value on winning, then the majority of the time you are disappointed. And I don’t think that’s a great way to go through life.”

::

There have been discussions about Kondos Field remaining with UCLA athletics in some capacity, but she plans to keep her distance from gymnastics. Whoever the new coach is — the university has not made an announcement — they will need space to build a legacy outside Kondos Field’s shadow.

She occasionally will attend meets and practices, though, if only to further cultivate relationships she’s built.

Said associate head coach Randy Lane: “I don’t think there’s ever gonna be a day where she’s not gonna be helping mentor someone.”

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Kondos Field said she considers the close of her coaching career as “a final page to a chapter.”

“Thank God there’s a new chapter starting,” she added.

To her gymnasts, so many superheroes, she’s been something of a mother bird.

She leaves confident they are “ready to fly.”

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