Chris Waller felt it Thursday morning, when he led practice with the UCLA gymnastics team for the first time as head coach. It was visible in the energy of the gymnasts, and their excitement through the workouts.
For about two weeks the Bruins did not know who their new coach would be, since Valorie Kondos Field retired after her 29th year leading them. They got an answer Wednesday, when athletic director Dan Guerrero announced the hiring of Waller. Minutes before the formal announcement, the Bruins learned the news in a team meeting.
“I just felt this incredible connection between them,” Waller said. “And it just felt like they were so excited for the year to come.”
Waller, 50, learned he was hired by UCLA on Wednesday morning. An hour and a half after the announcement, he had already received more than 250 congratulatory text messages. A UCLA graduate and former U.S. Olympian, Waller worked on Kondos Field’s coaching staff for 17 years.
Kondos Field hugged Waller after he heard the news, and said in a statement that he was “born to coach.” Waller plans to keep alive some traditions Kondos Field started, like dancing to stay loose during competitions and performing vibrant floor routines. The latter, he said, is in the back of his mind as he assembles a coaching staff.
“We’ve been working side-by-side for so many years in a row … there’s a lot of things that we did together with this program,” Waller said. “And the lessons that she has taught her athletes, you know, I’ve learned those lessons over the years, too. And so the program itself is just a part of my DNA.”
He will rely on those lessons and on knowledge he is still gathering, from meetings with the team and the individuals who comprise it. He asked them, “What can help you have the best year of your life?” Their answers will guide his approach to coaching them.
“I’m getting a pulse of the team, basically, and giving them a voice,” Waller said, “so they know that as a new head coach, I’m gonna keep my head close to the ground so I understand the pulse of the team.”
He knows he cannot be another Kondos Field, and he is not trying to be. Kondos Field led the Bruins to seven national championships.
Central to Waller’s philosophy is staying true to himself. He likes keeping an organized game plan, and grows excited watching team leaders set the tone for the season.
The greatest source of Waller’s enthusiasm comes from developing the athletes outside the gym — a trait he and Kondos Field share. Waller relishes in pushing them to do what they once considered impossible, in growing confidence in every facet of their lives.