The title of Valorie Kondos Field’s book, “Life is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance,” offers wise advice, a metaphor and a tribute all at once.
The coach of UCLA’s women’s gymnastics team built her extraordinarily successful career on encouraging self-direction and being 1% better each day at a form of expression that feeds your soul. The “dance” in the title can mean actually dancing but also is a touching reference to late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, an avid supporter of the women’s gymnastics team and a mentor to Kondos Field.
Late in his long and fruitful life, Wooden would mention one regret when asked if there was anything he hadn’t done. “ ‘My wife Nellie loved to dance and yet I never danced with her because I was shy and did not think I was a good dancer. My biggest regret is that I didn’t dance with my wife,’” Kondos Field quoted him. She added, “In a way I also feel as if I had my own dance with Coach Wooden. He moved me to a life I never would have dreamed of. He gave me permission to embrace my uniqueness and unapologetically share that with others.”
Her background was in ballet, not competitive gymnastics, but she guided the Bruins to a remarkable seven NCAA championships. She will retire after this season, her 29th as head coach, and will leave a legacy beyond the NCAA titles, 19 NCAA regional titles and 14 Paci-12 titles her athletes won. Her book, part autobiography and part thoughtful self-help manual, touches on those individual and team triumphs and on their struggles. Among them is her 2014 battle with breast cancer. “At that point I decided I didn’t believe in bucket lists. Dump the bucket and just start plugging away at your list,” she said, and so she did.
The book will be released on Oct. 2 by Center Street. She’s now working on a Broadway show, a UCLA course on Wooden’s life, and consulting on — and maybe playing herself — in a movie about Christine Peng-Peng Lee, whose two perfect 10 scores highlighted the Bruins’ comeback victory at this year’s NCAA final.
“I always tell our seniors, when they have a hard time moving on and graduating: ‘You know what, you being part of the UCLA gymnastics program, it’s not about gymnastics. It’s about everything that you’ve learned in this program and now you should take that and go do something else with it in life,’” said Kondos Field, 59. “Because otherwise you just become a hamster and keep spinning. And that’s part of it. I feel I’ve exhausted all there is to learn. I don’t need to win another championship. The most rewarding part of the job is helping 18- to 22-year-olds find their voice, figure out who they want to be in life.”
Kondos Field is known as “Miss Val,” a courtesy from the ballet tradition. Her teams have always been known for their joy, and for the creativity and flare she encourages. She’s a motivator, not a dictator, and she promotes individuality. For some elite gymnasts who came to UCLA after competing for their national or Olympic teams, the freedom to think and express themselves was confusing. Katelyn Ohashi told Kondos Field she didn’t want to be great anymore “because she associated it with a negative training environment and other pressures.”
Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympic bronze medalist “whose spirit had been extinguished through ridicule and fear,” was stunned when told to practice whatever she thought she should work on. “Later she told me how she thought it was some perverse test. She couldn’t believe this wasn’t a trick and that I would actually ask her for her opinion,” Kondos Field wrote.
They were trained to obey authority without question, an atmosphere that enabled former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to abuse more than 140 women and girls, including the 2012 Olympic champion “Fierce Five” team. Kondos Field said she confronted Steve Penny, then president and chief executive of USA Gymnastics, in 2012 to ask why then-national team coordinator Martha Karolyi — whose Texas ranch was the site of some of Nassar’s crimes — was allowed to be verbally and emotionally abusive.
“The entirety of his reply was, ‘She wins.’ I countered with, ‘At what cost?’ That question was met with dismissive silence,’’ Kondos Field wrote. She added, “All Martha cared about was winning and all Steve cared about was the money that came with the winning. Martha is a brilliant strategist and Steve Penny is a really good businessman but they forgot the human component of this.”
Kondos Field said she’d like to help repair USA Gymnastics as “a voice from outside,” using her strong relationships with current and former athletes. “We’ve lost our royalty, our history,” she said, “and somebody’s got to go in there and bring that family back together.”
About four months before the final draft of the book was due, she told co-author Steve Cooper she couldn’t finish. She feared people seeking technical tips would be disappointed and call her “a whack job.” Cooper told her that’s exactly why she should continue, that readers would be inspired by the unique talents she has brought to UCLA. That resonated with her.
“Whatever your metaphor for your dance is, go do it,” she said.