She dabbed at her eyes more than once, but this wasn’t a time for sorrow. There were hugs to be doled out and people to thank, words of comfort and encouragement to be whispered before she could think of herself.
And there was music playing. Not a victory song, but rhythms that compelled Valorie Kondos Field to give herself up to the beat, to smile and sway and remember how right her mentor, John Wooden, had been when he told her success isn’t always predicated on winning. She knew that, on some level, but she never felt that as deeply as she did Saturday night.
And so Kondos Field spent her final moments as coach of the UCLA women’s gymnastics team the way she had spent most of her 29 years on the Bruins staff: bestowing love and support and dancing her high heels off for the sheer love of movement and expression. Her gymnasts danced with her and around her, a different kind of victory she will remember affectionately even though the Bruins did not win the NCAA title.
“We’re a sport based on perfection, and so when you’re not perfect it’s easy to get down on yourself,” Kondos Field said. “And I always tell them that the only thing you need to strive for perfectly is the intention.”
There was no happy ending to her final season, no repeat of the last-minute miracles the Bruins pulled off a year ago to win their seventh NCAA title under her guidance. They finished third here behind Oklahoma and Louisiana State, powerhouse teams whose gymnasts displayed steely nerves and performed near-perfect routines when the Bruins could not.
The team that earned 21 perfect scores of 10 this season, more than any other team in the nation, earned no 10s here. Most surprising, though, was their performance on floor exercise. Their routines, long renowned for the great flair Kondos Field had infused, weren’t as vibrant or sharp as they’ve been. Without high scores on floor exercise, they had no chance.
“I honestly don’t know what happened,” junior Kyla Ross said. “I guess people either had too much energy or not enough.”
That missing vigor and a few bobbles and a couple of extra hops elsewhere were too many mistakes for UCLA to prevail over Oklahoma, which won its third title in four seasons on the strength of 198.3375 points to 197.8250 for Louisiana State, 197.5375 for UCLA and 197.000 for Denver. Yet, the Bruins still danced afterward and Kondos Field danced with them. It was not the result they had hoped for but they still found satisfaction in the process of getting through a long season and getting through Friday’s semifinal to Saturday’s final at the Fort Worth Convention Center.
“We learned to compete like it’s never over til it’s over, so we had to keep fighting, keep pushing,” Ross said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t our best meet, but we still had to put on a good face and still compete with joy and finish the meet, especially for Miss Val.”
The courtesy title “Miss Val” became part of her identity a long time ago, a remnant of her ballet training. To the end, though they left with third-place awards instead of the big prize, her athletes stayed true to that respectful habit. And they honored her beyond that, by dancing through their tears while they waited for an awards ceremony in which they wouldn’t be front and center.
“But we still got a trophy and we won in our hearts,” senior Katelyn Ohashi said.
Seeing them dance was the biggest win of all for Kondos Field.
“Well, I was actually thrilled that they’re the ones that started the dancing,” she said. “Because you know what? Life is short, don’t wait to dance. Oh, that should be the title of a book.”
It is the title of a book, one she wrote and was published last year.
“Somebody wrote that,” she said, agreeably. “I was really proud. They were, you could see all the emotions. They were frustrated, they were angry, then they were sorrowful, it being the last day we’re all together, and then they went back to our default.”
Their default is the joy she has taught them they’re allowed to feel, the happiness they’ve gained from becoming a family, more than a team. She hopes that feeling will remain after she moves on to the many projects she has planned, and she will make a point of talking to each athlete when the team returns home.