One by one, gymnasts strut out from behind a blue curtain. They push aside the heavy drapes that display UCLA’s seven women’s gymnastics national championship banners and catwalk down a blue carpeted runway wearing blue and pink, black and gold and blue and silver. Another energetic crowd at Pauley Pavilion buzzes with excitement.
On the side, Chris Waller leans casually on the scorer’s table.
“It’s a show, baby,” the first-year head coach says.
After 17 years of being an understudy, Waller is now a headliner of the UCLA gymnastics production. The longtime assistant needs new business cards after being promoted following former head coach Valorie Kondos Field’s retirement in April, but to the Bruins, it’s business as usual.
The next installment of UCLA gymnastics officially begins Saturday at the Collegiate Challenge at the Anaheim Convention Center. The four-team meet at 6:30 p.m. also includes defending national champion Oklahoma, Stanford and California.
In his unofficial debut, Waller, an Olympian and former All-American at UCLA, put a new spin on an old Bruin classic. “Operation Peacock” allows gymnasts to dress as the character they portray during their floor routine during one practice every year. This year, instead of holding the event behind closed doors, the Bruins brought it to the public at their intrasquad meet.
Instead of home-made costumes, the Bruins dressed in custom leotards. The parade of multicolored outfits didn’t resemble UCLA’s classic blue and gold, but the familiar cornerstones of the program were still there: high-level gymnastics performed with joy and love.
The coaching staff has changed, but Waller attests those values won’t.
“There’s a really great balance between cherishing and loving the legacy that is UCLA gymnastics and embracing this new chapter,” Waller, 51, said. “I want to continue inspiring young people in the audience to see that you can in fact be successful, work hard and have a blast doing it.”
Katelyn Ohashi’s viral floor routine put UCLA’s unique brand of joyful gymnastics in front of a larger audience than ever before. The Bruins performed in front of more than 10,000 at each of their final four home meets last season, including a program-record attendance mark of 12,907. UCLA was soaring, but Kondos Field, itching to explore different avenues such as motivational speaking and writing, felt the program was ready for a change.
With Waller and a team that lost just three of a total 24 routines, the Bruins expect only change for good this season.
“Miss Val got the ball rolling and UCLA has been this momentous kind of force in gymnastics in the collegiate world,” senior Felicia Hano said. “[Waller is] going to take what she had and make it even greater.”
The Bruins, who finished third at the NCAA championships last year, are ranked fourth nationally in the preseason and were voted as the preseason favorite to three-peat as Pac-12 champions.
Waller has a team with solid leadership from its nine seniors, including Olympians Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian. But he also sees a group that’s been through consistent emotional challenges with so much change.
Not only did Kondos Field retire, but former volunteer assistant Jordyn Wieber took the head coaching job at Arkansas, and Randy Lane, another former associate head coach, wasn’t retained during the coaching change. Waller brought in former UCLA gymnast Kristina Comforte as his associate head coach, former volunteer assistant Dom Palange as a full-time assistant and BJ Das as the team’s new floor choreographer.
Waller writes his aspirations for the new group in a journal, the way he’s done for the last 30 years, filling notebooks of all shapes and sizes. He wants the team to have an unbreakable trust. Be adaptable. Be bold. Be authentic.
“If we do those things, you’re going to feel the energy from UCLA gymnastics that is familiar,” Waller said. “That palpable, joyful, but strong energy.”
As Kondos Field’s longtime assistant, Waller was the “yin to her yang,” the former head coach often said.
Kondos Field, a former ballet dancer, specialized in preparing her athletes emotionally and mentally for competition. Waller is a “savant” when it comes to technical knowledge, Kondos Field said. He wrote the training plans and worked closely with the strength staff to tailor the conditioning for the team’s week-to-week needs. She was never one for fiery pre-game speeches. Those were Waller’s specialty.
“The athletes are going to want to follow him into battle,” Kondos Field said.
Kondos Field and Waller led the Bruins to four of the program’s national championships. Waller was National Assistant Coach of the Year in 2004 and the West Region Assistant Coach of the Year in 2010 and 2018.
After Kondos Field oversaw UCLA’s rise into a gymnastics powerhouse, many worried about what would become of the program without its longtime leader. When Waller took over, one of his first actions was to ask his athletes what they thought. They told him the same thing Kondos Field said: Be yourself.
“A lot of the feedback was we love Miss Val, but we don’t want it to feel like Miss Val 2.0,” Waller said. “[We want] for it to feel authentic. We just feel like you gotta find your own voice.”
Waller’s voice, to start, is loud. While Kondos Field expressed her joy through impromptu dancing during meets, Waller shows his approval with wild gesticulations and shouts of encouragement. When athletes stick perfect dismounts on bars, the event he oversees during meets, he’ll throw his arms up, jump in the air or excitedly point to the mat as if to emphasize to the judge just how well his gymnast performed.
While Kondos Field made it a point to say she didn’t define success as winning, Waller admits he loves to win. But more than the trophies, he loves battling to win, he said.
During his gymnastics career, which landed him in the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2003, Waller took pride in being the first person in the gym and the last to leave. Now, he battles in a different way, coaching relentlessly, both at UCLA and at the gym he co-owns with his wife Cindy, Wallers’ GymJam Academy in Santa Clarita.
“He does not have a lazy bone in his body,” Kondos Field said. “He loves to coach. It’s not a job. It’s his calling.”
Waller has been a coach since he started gymnastics. He was in fifth grade when someone at a YMCA handed him and his friend a book of gymnastics routines. They picked a level, then coached each other for the next two years.
The humble gymnastics beginning blossomed into a career that included U.S. titles in the all-around (1991) and pommel horse (1991-93), four All-American honors at UCLA and the 1987 NCAA title with the Bruins. Before advancing to the all-around final and finishing fifth in the pommel horse in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Waller won individual NCAA titles on the pommel horse (1989) and the high bar (1990).
He did it all with a surgically repaired heart.
Waller, who was born with congenital heart defects, underwent surgery at 15 to correct a descending aorta that was closing up. The ailment prevented him from excelling at events such as floor and vault as his lower body was functioning without the full blood flow. Surgeons corrected it with a Teflon patch.
Upon hearing of the diagnosis, Waller was shocked. He felt like he was broken. But his doctors reframed the procedure as an athletic surgery and he could come back better than ever. They could even do the surgery through his ribs instead of his chest so he could still do an iron cross on the rings.
“I didn’t think I was defective anymore,” said Waller, who underwent a second procedure 12 years ago to correct an aneurysm that was connected to the first surgery. “I just thought, ‘Sweet, I’m going to be a better athlete.’ And it just switched.”
Waller graduated from UCLA in 1991 and competed for the U.S. national team until 1997. He thought he would go into teaching after his career. He would have liked to be a history professor at UCLA.
He’s still teaching, he supposes, but instead of carrying a briefcase into a classroom, he goes into Yates Gym and gets covered in chalk. Waller wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s unbelievably rewarding helping people break through personal barriers,” Waller said. “Doing that is a template for the rest of their lives.”
When Waller leads the Bruins onto the floor in Anaheim on Saturday, it won’t be his first meet with head coach responsibilities. In 2003, during his second meet as a UCLA assistant, Waller was named acting head coach for a meet at Utah when Kondos Field was unable to travel because of neck spasms. The Utes had a 170-meet, 23-year home winning streak, the longest such run across any NCAA sport.
Walking into his first meet as a head coach, Waller had “every right to be all puffed up,” Kondos Field said. Instead the first-year assistant was on the phone with Kondos Field before the meet, asking her what she told the gymnasts before their beam routines. He wrote down the words of wisdom on three-by-five note cards.
During the heat of competition, Waller pulled out the cards. They were filled with nontraditional tips only Kondos Field knew to say. He told Kristin Parker, a senior who relied heavily on her faith, that she was performing for an audience of one. Instead of telling another gymnast to keep her legs straight, a technical tip any coach could critique, all Waller said was “strong legs.”
The Bruins won 197.225-196.75.
“That took a lot of humility to do that,” Kondos Field said. “He could have said, ‘Val has never done a cartwheel in her life, what the hell does she know about gymnastics? I know more than she knows, I’m going to tell them to do this.’ But he didn’t do it. He stuck with the plan.”
The experience showed Waller the importance of nurturing an athlete’s mental well-being as much as the physical abilities. Kondos Field saw how much Waller embraced the team’s meetings, where instead of discussing straight legs and pointed toes, the team talked about motivations and goals.
When he takes charge of meetings now, Waller asks the same questions to his team. He tells his athletes he’s excited to embark on this new journey with them, but he’s anxious about not knowing everything he’s supposed to know. From social media, to travel to picking leotards, much of Waller’s job is new. But the most important part remains the same.
“No matter who’s in charge of us, it’s still us working in the gym hard every single day,” sophomore Margzetta Frazier said. “You’re still going to get the same UCLA gymnastics culture, which is just happiness.”