UCLA gymnastics team begins new era with same flair on floor
Chris Waller was hoping to take over one of the most successful and popular teams at UCLA. The Bruins’ gymnastics team was packing Pauley Pavilion, breaking the internet with viral floor routines and winning championships. But when the longtime assistant coach was being interviewed for the head coaching position early this year, everyone needed to know: What is he going to do with the floor routines without Valorie Kondos Field?
His answer was BJ Das.
While Waller takes the mantle from his legendary predecessor who retired last April after 29 years at the helm, it’s Das, a volunteer assistant coach and choreographer, who is responsible for the most iconic part of UCLA gymnastics. She is now the director of the floor routines.
Das’ floor production had its big dress rehearsal at UCLA’s “Meet the Bruins” exhibition at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday as the Bruins dressed in customized leotards and performed their routines in front of a crowd of 1,313. They open their season on Jan. 4 at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim. The Blue Team, headlined by Felicia Hano, Pauline Tratz and Norah Flately, beat the Kyla Ross- and Madison Kocian-led Gold Team 117.95-117.60.
The Bruins performed eight floor routines that counted for the meet and three additional exhibitions, displaying Das’ wide range of choreography skills from Hano’s salsa-inspired routine to Flatley’s “Black Swan” ballet piece to Tratz’s 1980s electronic song. The former Washington gymnast looked on proudly as the gymnasts performed her choreography on a floor named for the program’s former coach, marking a major changing of the guard at UCLA.
“I’ve watched what [Kondos Field] created over the years and how she’s really changed the game in terms of artistry and fun and performance,” Das said. “This is the legacy I’m a part of now and I want to continue to grow and develop in that way and make sure that the artistry is always first on floor because I think that’s what we’re kind of known for and it’s important to me and important to the school and the whole gymnastics program.”
The Bruins were ranked first on floor in each of the last two years and gained international attention as routines such as Katelyn Ohashi’s went viral. Ohashi, who graduated last year, attended the meet Saturday, watching with the coaches from the competition floor. She told the crowd she was especially excited to see Das’ floor routines.
Das, a professional dancer, competed at Washington before a career-ending injury prompted her to pursue dance. Since graduating from Washington in 2006 and moving to L.A., she has performed with artists such as Beyoncé, Pink and Usher, and choreographed for commercials and TV shows such as “GLOW” and “The Masked Singer.” Last year, she choreographed floor routines for Utah, but she jumped at the opportunity to work with the Bruins. Finding a capable successor to Kondos Field’s choreography position was “overwhelmingly important,” Waller said.
“So much of the UCLA gymnastics brand is choreography and floor,” Waller said. “The big question is ‘What are UCLA’s floor routines going to look like now that Miss Val’s gone [after] 29 years?’ … I can’t say enough about what BJ has done [and] her work ethic and commitment to making this to a breakout, huge year.”
The Bruins displayed Das’ work with a pumped-up version of one of Kondos Field’s original ideas. Under Kondos Field, the team used a practice day called “Operation Peacock” to encourage gymnasts to connect with the character at the center of their floor routines by dressing up while performing. The team did it once a year during preseason practice. Saturday was the first time “Operation Peacock” made its public debut as gymnasts performed in custom leotards they each designed to embody the theme of their routines.
“We just thought it would be really fun,” Waller said. “Why not?”
Kocian’s blue, pink and white outfit was inspired by a pool party. Flatley, a sophomore who only competed one floor routine last year, performed in a high-necked black leotard that channeled “Black Swan” as she opened her routine with ballet movements on tip toes.
The unique creations won’t be used during the season as the team must dress in matching leotards for official meets, but Hano said she plans to cherish forever her Mexican-inspired black leotard with pink and green floral accents.
The new routine seemed like a drastic change for Hano, whose previous routine was set to a thumping electronic beat. She performed as a 1920’s mermaid as a junior, when she was a second-team All-American on floor, but she was inspired by her Mexican heritage and went to Das with Latin music this season. The senior said she wanted to salsa.
“If I wanted a certain move in there, she would incorporate it in and I think it was really awesome to have that open communication with her,” said Hano, who fell on her final tumbling pass and finished with a 9.425. “It made our floor routines even 10 times better, I feel like, because each is individualized for us.”
Das acknowledged there is still cleaning up to be done before the Bruins open their season in the four-team meet that includes defending national champion Oklahoma, California and Stanford. But the ear-to-ear grin stretched across her face after Saturday’s meet still gave the look of a proud coach.
Das said it “feels like a dream” to combine her love of gymnastics and dance at UCLA. She feels free to be herself. The Seattle native said that as a young gymnast, she never thought it was possible to perform floor routines like the artistic ones she’s created that incorporate for different dance styles. It would have blown her mind to see that as a young gymnast because it would have been “everything [she] wanted and more.” She’s hoping to have the same effect on the fans heading to Pauley Pavilion this season to see the new era of UCLA gymnastics’ floor routines.
“I feel like I want people to leave this inspired just to be great at whatever it is that they love to do,” Das said.
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