Veteran coach Valorie Kondos Field hails current U.S. gymnasts

Seven-time NCAA champ coach 'Miss Val' discusses retirement, honouring sexual abuse survivors and the future of USA Gymnastics.

The 2018-19 season signals the end of an era for the UCLA Bruins women's gymnastics team.

After 29 years at the helm, and 36 years at UCLA, Valorie Kondos Field - aka Miss Val - will be stepping down as head coach.

The veteran coach, who comes from a dance rather than a gymnastics background, released her new memoir, Life is Short: Don’t Wait to Dance, earlier this month.

The book chronicles her personal journey from the disappointing early seasons of her time as UCLA head coach to securing a seventh NCAA Championship in 2018.

Renowned for her focus on process over results, Kondos Field shares insights from her decades-long experience in sport and offers insights on using one’s unique characteristics to achieve success.

'Don't Wait to Dance'

Kondos Field never thought she would write a book. She thought everything she had to say had been said.

But after a battle with breast cancer and inspiration from a friend, her mind was changed.

“Four years ago when I got breast cancer, I had this stark realisation that we all have an expiration date, we just don’t know when ours is,” Kondos Field told Olympic Channel.

Valorie Kondos Field and US women's water polo coach Adam Krikorian at Team USA Awards in November 2017

“I figured at that point, why do I need to wait to retire to start on my bucket list? I figured I would ditch the bucket and start on the list. One of the things was I always wanted to write a book.”

She set to work with co-author Steve Cooper who, she says, kept her focused through a difficult process which left her doubting herself.

“About four months before we handed in the final draft, I called ‘Coop’ and said, 'I can’t write this book. They’re going to read this and they’re going to say this lady’s a total whack job.'"

She then added with a laugh, “He said very seriously, ‘No, Miss Val, you are a whack job. That’s why you need to write the book because you give us all permission to be ourselves.’

"Once he said that, I just shed any insecurities that I had.”

UCLA and Oklahoma gymnasts locking arms at the 'Together We Rise' meet. (Courtesy UCLA Athletics)

Together We Rise

The 59-year-old has become a leading voice in a sport facing great upheaval in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

Several of Kondos Field's athletes, including Olympians Jamie Dantzscher, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, have come forward to say they are survivors of Nassar’s abuse.

In the days and weeks after the testimony of more than 100 survivors in a Michigan courtroom, including that of Wieber, Kondos Field called University of Oklahoma head coach K.J. Kindler with an idea.

She wanted to honor Sooner standout and 2015 world champion Maggie Nichols - the first athlete to report Nassar's abuse - alongside the Bruins’ Dantzscher, Jeanette Antolin, Mattie Larson, and Wieber at their upcoming dual meet.

“That meet transcended sport. I believe that meet was one of the most impactful gymnastics meets that’s ever been.”

—Valorie Kondos Field

The competition was intense with Oklahoma edging out UCLA by just 0.05 points.

But off the field of play, both teams wore T-shirts reading, 'Together We Rise'.

An emotional video was produced honouring survivors and teal bracelets were handed out to spectators.

Kondos Field recalled, “When it was all over, it was like ‘Great, great, meet'. Hugs all around. And then, coming together in solidarity around the floor with the same colour on, embracing each other in support of owning your voice and not being afraid to speak your truth.

“I am just so proud of that. K.J. and I both still to this day talk about how proud we are that we were a part of that."

The Future

The American women's position at the top of gymnastics does not appear to be under threat at any time soon.

They are overwhelming favourites to win gold at this month’s World Championships in Doha, and a third consecutive Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.

And yet, despite the successful return of Olympic champion Simone Biles to competition, much of the attention to the sport has been fixed on the fall-out from the Nassar scandal.

“I’ve heard a lot of them say, ‘What about us? What is our Olympic experience going to be like?’ And that’s just heartbreaking,” Kondos Field reflected.

“But they’re able to push forward because of what they learn from the sport. That’s why I think the sport is so beautiful.”

Gymnastics, according to Kondos Field, has the unique ability to teach the resilience, inner strength, focus and determination on display from current members of the US national team.

“In our sport there’s nobody to pass the ball to. You’ve got to figure out how to finish with confidence and poise,” the long-time coach said.

“They will go down in history with as much impact as the survivors have because the survivors are making the change, and [they] are the ones keeping the foundation strong and saying, ‘USA Gymnastics – American gymnastics – is not going to fall on our watch. We are still going to represent like we always have.’

“And they’re doing it beautifully.”