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UCLA Sports

Column: Valorie Kondos Field’s transformation of UCLA gymnastics will live on past her tenure

Valorie Kondos Field shook up the rigid world of college gymnastics when she arrived to work with the UCLA women’s team 29 years ago, bringing with her a ballet dancer’s sensibilities and an unquenchable yearning for free expression. She wanted the young women she coached to be performers, not robots who tumbled or soared on command, and she wanted them to nurture their souls more than she wanted them to improve their balance beam or vault scores.

Free thinking and performing high-level gymnastics are conflicting concepts at the elite level. Gymnasts have been indoctrinated to obey authority or risk losing a shot at a national team spot or other honor; that thinking produced the repressive atmosphere that sustained former national team doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of girls and women. Kondos Field has always encouraged her athletes to question tradition and question her, too. She has never felt threatened by it. She felt enriched by them, and the feeling was mutual.

Kondos Field will coach the No. 2-ranked Bruins for the last time on Saturday, when they face LSU, No. 1-ranked Oklahoma, and the University of Denver for their second successive NCAA title and eighth overall. She will leave college gymnastics better and more joyful than she found it.

“It’s so surreal. I’m like really excited and really sad,” said sophomore Nia Dennis, whose solid performance on floor exercise Friday morning helped the Bruins overtake LSU for the top spot in the first semifinal and earn a berth in Saturday’s “Four on the Floor” final at the Fort Worth Convention Center Arena.

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“Just so many emotions are happening,” Dennis said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to lose it. I don’t think I’m going to wear my makeup [Saturday] so it’s not too bad by the end of the day.”

Junior Kyla Ross, who shared the individual event titles in floor exercise and vault, said team members have kept their emotions in check because it’s the best way to pay tribute to Kondos Field. “We’ve been training so long in the gym and every day we’ve kind of approached it as we’re doing this for ourselves and our team and for Miss Val, to represent her great,” Ross said. “It’s such an honor to be her last team, so we definitely want to go out there make her proud this year.”

D-D Breaux, LSU’s coach for 42 years and a former nationally ranked gymnast, joked that coaches with more traditional backgrounds than Kondos Field’s “had to explain things to her along the way.” But Breaux respects the perspective Kondos Field has brought to the sport.

“She does have an extreme artistic flair, and she’s had that since she went to UCLA as a choreographer and then was named the head coach,” Breaux said. “It’s just been a process to watch, and surrounding yourself with great coaches with strengths in other areas is what success in this sport is all about.”

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As a dancer, Kondos Field defined success as a good performance, an ovation. The notion of competing “was so foreign to me….I’ve never had that athlete heart of, ‘Grrr,’” she said, adding something close to a growl. She credited Breaux and other coaches with teaching her competition can build character if it’s done in a healthy manner.

“I had to learn to care about winning and that it’s important,” Kondos Field said. “And I kept trying to tell myself for years, no it’s not, it’s not that important, as long as the athletes are learning stuff and they’re good and they’re going out to the world and making a positive difference, it’s OK if they don’t win. But I shifted that thinking. No, if you’re going to do gymnastics, do it to the best of your ability, and if you’re that talented, then train and compete to win. That was the shift that happened. Because it’s really fun to win.

“People have asked me what I’m going to take with me into my next ventures and that is one thing that really stands out,” Kondos Field said, turning toward Breaux as they shared a table at a news conference. “Even when I just look at you I see this healthy, competitive nature that it’s really, really fun to train hard and compete to win. And at the end of the day, D-D has always been so great at this, that even if you don’t win, you can still feel proud of your efforts. It’s not all about winning and that was something I knew absolutely nothing about, and I learned all of that from them in the SEC.”

Kondos Field tried to avoid letting sentiment change her habits as she neared the end of her coaching career. She certainly didn’t relax her standards. On Friday she put Dennis in the floor exercise lineup in place of Margzetta Frazier because Frazier hadn’t warmed up properly. “It’s not because we don’t have faith in somebody that doesn’t warm up well,” Kondos Field said, “but it does introduce stress to the rest of the team, and that’s why she was pulled.”

Soon, Kondos Field will move on to projects she never had time to pursue: A movie. A stage show about the environment with Cirque du Soleil-type effects. Speaking engagements. Developing what she called “transformative coaching,” and the ways parents teach their kids to value success. If she sheds a tear on Saturday it will be not because her time is over but to celebrate she had this much time and this much of an opportunity to launch confident young women into the world. “She always says, ‘Leave the floor with no regrets,’” Ross said. “I feel like as long as we do that, we’re going to have such a great last memory with her and with the team.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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