UCLA gymnastics coach Val Kondos Field's storied (and unconventional) career comes to an end
Margzetta Frazier had her heart set on attending an SEC school. She loved Alabama and Georgia and was deciding between the two when she thought looking at just one more school might help. She and her parents flew to Los Angeles without many expectations.
But as soon as she met UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field, her plans changed with one simple question.
"She asked me right away what I wanted to do after gymnastics," Frazier says, before sighing. "No one had ever asked me that before."
A member of the U.S. national team who spent years in the elite system, the 19-year-old couldn't believe someone cared about her passions outside of the sport. She frankly didn't know she was supposed to have any.
"I realized Miss Val, and the entire coaching staff, didn't just want me to win in gymnastics, but in life too," Frazier says. "They have my best interests at heart. They want me to be not an excellent gymnast, but an excellent person. And I really appreciated that and I fell in love with this school and the coaches right away. I was immediately sold -- and no one could change my mind after that."
Frazier's story might sound almost hard to believe, but it's not exactly unique on the UCLA gymnastics team. After 29 years at the helm, Kondos Field, 59, will retire this season -- and in the sports world, her coaching style can only be described as, well, unconventional. With a big-picture philosophy that combines dance parties with major life lessons and gymnastics training, she focuses more on the people on her team than on winning any individual title.
But she has proven that her approach works pretty well at winning titles too. She has coached the UCLA Bruins to seven national championships, including the 2018 title. And entering the NCAA gymnastics championships this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, the Bruins are certainly in contention to repeat. They won their fourth straight Pac-12 title last month, and were given the No. 2 overall seed entering the tournament, behind Oklahoma.
It's the day before the first meet of the season, Kondos Field's final season, and she is relaxed and upbeat, and knowing full well all eyes are on her as she walks into the gym. As she waits for her team to gather, she watches the end of the school's spirit squad practice, and then makes her way around the room until she has high-fived every last member. It's immediately clear she is revered, and maybe a little bit feared.
The spirit squad is readying for the men's basketball game later that night -- the first with interim head coach Murry Bartow -- and she gives them encouraging words and stresses the squad's importance.
"You've got to get the crowd into it early," she says, with the members eating up her every word. "The team needs you." As they leave, she tells them she hopes they'll attend tomorrow's meet. They nod unconvincingly.
"Where will you be sitting?" she says, suddenly with her eyes alert and focused, clearly pouncing on their hesitancy.
If they weren't sincere before, they certainly seem to be now. They'll be there, sitting in the stands by the balance beam, they say nervously.
She walks away with the posture and poise of a ballet dancer, her job in a former life, and is clearly pleased with her recruiting efforts.
She makes it just a few feet before she notices two fans eagerly peering into the gym from the lobby. They've been lurking around all day, hoping to catch a glimpse of Kondos Field and some of their favorite gymnasts. They've been fans of the team for years, and finally made the trek from Pennsylvania to see the Bruins in action. Kondos Field invites them to stay for the entire practice.
"If you need anything at all, just let me know," she says to them, before sending over a team manager a few moments later to offer them water, tea or coffee.
The team and assistant coaches trickle in, and Kondos Field greets each one with an inside joke or a personal greeting. "How did that test go?" "How's your shoulder feeling?"
The fans from Pennsylvania squeal every time one of the more recognizable team members arrives. And with three Olympic gold medalists -- juniors Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian and volunteer assistant coach Jordyn Wieber -- as well as viral sensation Katelyn Ohashi, there is a lot to squeal about.
Finally practice begins. Well, sort of. It's always a light practice day when there's a meet the next day. On this day, the team takes turns performing one another's floor routines for the rest of the group -- just the relaxed vibe Kondos Field (better known as Miss Val) wants her team to have entering the season.
"Miss Val is really one of the biggest reasons why I decided to come to UCLA," says Ross, who is a clear favorite to take home the NCAA individual all-around title. "I knew that if I came here, I would really have a fun and exciting new experience, and I think that was something I really needed, especially after a long, hard elite career. I think she really helped me come out of my shell and taught me to always speak my mind and speak the truth."
Kocian shares Ross' admiration for Kondos Field, and admits her coaching style was a major adjustment. On her first day on the team, Kocian headed to beam and waited to be told what to do for the day. In elite gymnastics, she had a daily assignment -- how many of each skill to do. Seeing none, Kocian asked, "So, what do you want me to do today?"
Kondos Field replied, "What do you want to do?"
Kocian was shocked -- much like Frazier, she had never been asked that by a coach. "Here, she knows we're adults and know what we need so we can decide what that is, and [she] trusts we know what's best for us."
For Kondos Field, it's really not that novel of a concept, and is directly linked to success in the sport. "I have found that once a student-athlete trusts that I really care for them primarily as a human, then as an athlete, that's when the magic happens. That's when you can ask them to do the hardest conditioning challenge, and they'll put more intention, more intensity into it, because you've developed this bond."
It's no secret that gymnastics, especially at the elite level, is at a crossroads. The sport is still reeling from the horrific Larry Nassar sexual abuse case, and the subsequent upheaval at USA Gymnastics. More and more survivors continue to emerge, as well as stories about verbal abuse by former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi and other top elite coaches.
Several of Kondos Field's former athletes were among the first to come forward publicly with accusations about Nassar and the culture of abuse in elite gymnastics, including Jamie Dantzscher, Jeanette Antolin and Mattie Larson. Kondos Field has been a vocal critic of that stifling culture, and knows firsthand what it's like to see the lasting effects it has had on the sport's former stars. She has carefully developed her coaching style and philosophy to stand in stark contrast.
"Here at UCLA, this program treats the gymnasts like people first, and not robots," says Wieber, who began working with the team during her freshman year at the school as a manager. The 2011 world all-around champion and 2012 Olympic team member gave up her collegiate eligibility after turning professional before the London Games, and she has now experienced both worlds firsthand. "That's the No. 1 thing elite gymnastics could learn from [Kondos Field]. Our system in the U.S., we expect our athletes to come to the gym for seven hours a day and be this robot, and if you don't fit the mold, or if you can't get this specific score, then they don't care about you. But here, it's so much more team oriented and it allows the girls to come in here and enjoy the sport again -- it doesn't even matter if they're competing or not."
Wieber can relate to the former elite gymnasts on the team, and marvels at watching each one enter the program and transform over time. "It's amazing to see them initially and think that everything has to be this exact way, which is what we learned in elite, and seeing them now as juniors and seniors, and just laughing in the gym and not having to be so serious and hard on themselves, and perfect all the time. I feel like I experienced that too -- I'm a completely different person than I was my freshman year."
When hundreds of survivors, including Wieber, read their statements at Nassar's sentencing hearing in January 2018, Kondos Field knew she had to talk to her gymnasts about what was happening. She wanted them to have a safe space to share their feelings and emotions. Although she knew there probably were other women on the team who had experienced the abuse, she wanted to make sure they came to their own realizations on their own time and terms. She was moved when her team members said they wanted to publicly show their support for all of the survivors, and during UCLA's meet against No. 1 Oklahoma on Feb. 4, both teams wore teal ribbons. Wieber, Dantzscher, Antolin, Larson, and Oklahoma's Maggie Nichols were honored ahead of the meet for their courage and bravery for coming forward.
Later on that year, Ross and Kocian came to Kondos Field and said they too had been abused by Nassar. She was supportive of whatever they wanted to do. The pair shared their story on "CBS This Morning" last August and asked Kondos Field to be there with them during the broadcast.
"I was very proud of them, how they've handled this, and honored to be there with them," Kondos Field says.
With four national Coach of the Year honors and just about every other major award in her trophy case, Kondos Field is one of the sport's most iconic figures. Married to former UCLA associate athletic director and assistant football coach Bobby Field, the couple is a powerful duo in Westwood. But that's not exactly where she envisioned herself when she was the age of most of her athletes.
In fact, she barely knew anything about gymnastics.
Ballet was her first love, and she was immersed in it as a child growing up in Sacramento, California. She spent all of her free time in the studio, drinking in the lessons of her teachers and working toward her dream of becoming a professional dancer. By her late teens, she was dancing with the Capital City Ballet in her hometown, and by 22, she was offered a spot with the Washington Ballet in D.C.
It was 1982, and as she was getting ready to move across the country to start her new life, a friend mentioned the UCLA gymnastics team was looking for a dance coach. On a whim, she called then-head coach Jerry Tomlinson to talk about the role.
"I had been dancing, and I hadn't gotten a chance to go to college yet," Kondos Field said. "I loved school. I missed school. I had been out for four years, just dancing. When I heard UCLA, this great academic institution, needed a dance coach for their gymnastics team, I was like, 'Dance? UCLA?'
"I put those things together, and I found out who the head coach was. I called him up, and I gave him my credentials, and, just like that, they offered me a full scholarship to come to school, in lieu of a salary, which they didn't have. I was like, 'Done and done.' I retired from dancing, and moved to Southern California in September of 1982."
For eight seasons she worked with the team as a choreographer, and she tried to instill a performance element that she hadn't seen in the sport before, as well as some of the more rigid rules from the ballet world. Hair always pulled back. No slouching. If you're visible to fans, you're on stage.
As legend has it, her nickname "Miss Val" -- which follows the typical naming convention of dance teachers -- didn't exactly come from a place of endearment but instead a sarcastic comment from one of her gymnasts. "Should we call you Miss Val or something?" asked the frustrated athlete who was not a fan of the ballet themes in training, according to Kondos Field. The name stuck, although the team's attitude toward her dramatically improved. She developed close relationships with the athletes in a way most coaches typically don't, and she got to know what was going on with them outside the gym. The team was successful in competition as well -- the Bruins were the NCAA runner-up in 1984 and 1989 and won six NCAA individual titles from 1987 to 1989.
In 1990, after nearly a decade as an assistant at UCLA, Kondos Field quit and moved to Fresno with her then-fiancé, a farmer. She had enjoyed her time in Westwood, and was grateful to have earned her bachelor's degree in history but was ready to start afresh. Or so she thought.
A few months after she left, Tomlinson, the head coach, left. The school administration was struggling with whom to hire when Kondos Field's name was brought up. It took a few days to track her down in her new farm life, but they ultimately found her and gave her a call.
"I laughed out loud when our senior women's administrator offered me the job," she says. "I knew enough to not say, 'You're crazy,' but I did say, 'You understand I don't know the first thing about gymnastics, right?' She said, 'We've observed how you work with the student-athletes. We like the relationship you have with them. I trust you'll figure the rest out,' and that's all I got."
She left Fresno and her fiancé, and took the job.
But the winning didn't happen right away. In fact, she found herself struggling with imposter syndrome when she first began.
"I tried to emulate other head coaches at first," she says. "I mimicked them, basically, because I didn't know what I was doing. I knew nothing. So I tried to be these other coaches, and I would mimic the 'Coach talk' things that they would say. We were horrible, just horrible, and we didn't make it to the national championships my second year.
"I realized that I was trying to be somebody else and that never, ever works. You will always be a second-rate them, and the worst thing about that is that it prevents you from being a first-rate you. Once I realized how ridiculous that was and I stopped and thought: 'What do I bring to the table?' Having had 17 years of classical ballet training, I must bring something. That's when I started being pure to myself and doing a lot of the nontraditional things that have worked."
Kondos Field says she knew she was headed in the right direction when a senior on the team told her, "Miss Val, you've finally become a leader worth following, because you're finally being authentic and someone that we can believe in, because you're not trying to be somebody else.'"
For Kondos Field, that means occasionally teaching the waltz to get her athletes out of their comfort zones, or blaring music in hopes of helping increase focus. She frequently shares a story of falling on stage while performing but getting back up and earning the only standing ovation of her ballet career.
"It's a powerful message, because you see athletes, all the time, in any sport, when they fail miserably, but when they finish, they have endeared themselves to the audience and the fans like no perfect performance ever could," she explains.
Kondos Field has surrounded herself throughout her tenure with those far more versed and experienced in the sport. She brought in Scott Bull as a co-head coach for her first four seasons, recognizing he could fill in the gaps where she could not. Her current coaching staff includes Chris Waller, a former UCLA All-American and Olympian who has been with her for 17 years and is the assumed replacement as head coach (although the official announcement won't happen until after the season), Randy Lane, a former NCAA champion who has been part of her staff on and off for 15 years, and Wieber, whose gymnastics credentials speak for themselves. Kondos Field defers to them when it comes to matters of technique and skill.
She counted the legendary John Wooden, who led the UCLA men's basketball team to 10 national championships, as a mentor, and still relies on his lessons as some of her most valuable tools.
"He used to always tell his players, 'Don't get too high, and don't get too low. It's about balance. Life is about balance,'" she says.
Kondos Field likes to win, but she believes helping her gymnasts rediscover the joy of the sport, something many of them have lost during their elite careers, is her most important role.
"I was definitely miserable when I got here when it came to gymnastics," says Ohashi, who is legendary in elite gymnastics for being the last gymnast to beat Simone Biles in the all-around, in 2013. But after injuries, Ohashi ultimately stepped down from elite. "Being able to come here and meet Miss Val, who teaches us we're more than just a gymnast or just an athlete, it kind of took off the pressure of having to be a champion and be great and successful in your sport, and it allows you to be who you want to be and not have that fear. I was always so scared before of letting my coaches down, and letting everyone down, especially my family, who sacrificed so much for me."
When Ohashi first arrived in Los Angeles, she thought "they were doing some sort of reverse psychology thing" when a coach would tell her she had done a good routine. "I was so uncomfortable. I didn't think she was being serious. It took probably a full year for me to empty that previous baggage and trust her and the other coaches. She's taught me that you don't always have to be serious or train a certain way in order to be successful."
If you've seen Ohashi perform anytime over the past two years, and you probably have, she looks anything but miserable now. She calls her routines "joyful," and she certainly exudes that throughout competitions.
Winning might not be the only thing, but it still is paramount in the world of Division I athletics, and it's impossible to think Kondos Field's methods would be so well regarded if she wasn't successful.
Her seven national titles make her one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history across sports, and behind only Suzanne Yoculan (10) and Greg Marsden (9) in gymnastics. She has helped the Bruins earn 38 individual NCAA titles (including five in the all-around competition) during her tenure. She was inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010, and was named the Pac-12's Gymnastics Coach of the Century in 2016.
She still choreographs many of the team's floor routines, and several of them have gone viral over the past few years. Ohashi, the reigning NCAA floor champion, has had two of her collegiate routines make the internet rounds this season, amassing over 100 million views combined.
UCLA's routines seem to catch fire with sports fans, and that translates into people in the seats as well. The team averaged over 10,000 fans for home meets at Pauley Pavilion this season and set an attendance record with a crowd of 12,907 fans for its senior night, and Kondos Field's send off, in March against Utah State. The team won the meet, and then a group of alumni organized a flash mob dance to celebrate Kondos Field. Hundreds of people, including the current team and the entire Utah State squad, danced gleefully on the floor in her honor.
Perhaps more than anything, what makes Kondos Field's coaching strategy so enticing is that it has proven to work.
It might seem like a strange time for Kondos Field to walk away, at the height of success, but she's insistent about her decision. While coaching is an all-encompassing job for many, Kondos Field has always made sure to find time for her other passions. She has choreographed stage shows for SeaWorld San Diego, produced TV specials and written a memoir called "Life is Short, Don't Wait to Dance," that was released last year.
She's eager to devote her full-time energy to a number of projects, including working on an "Urban Nutcracker" and developing a class at UCLA on John Wooden. She and Waller discussed her coming back as a volunteer coach to help with choreography and team building, but they realized her calendar was already too full for that. "We would have to book her three months in advance," he jokes.
She knows she will miss the daily routine with her team, and her interactions -- and hugs -- around campus, but she's excited about the future.
"Everyone asks me why I wouldn't want to stick around and enjoy all this," she explains as she gestures her arms out wide as if she were getting into second position. "I just feel like you know when you know it's time. I haven't had one moment that I've questioned my decision. I just know."
She made the decision nearly two years ago, and quietly told Ohashi over lunch soon after. The now-21-year-old was honored that her coach trusted her so much with her secret, and thrilled to think they would be leaving the program at the same time.
"I seriously am so bad at keeping secrets, and I kept that one," she says. "I didn't want to let her down."
Kondos Field gathered her team during training camp at the start of the school year in September and revealed this would be her final season. The news was met with a mixture of sadness and surprise, and with a lot of tears.
Several members of her team were concerned she had had a recurrence of the breast cancer that was diagnosed in 2016, but she reassured them that was not the case. She's not really sure about what else was said, because she said she couldn't stop her own blubbering. Eventually, when everyone composed themselves a bit, she shared her plans and dreams for the future.
"I was surprised at first, especially because I wanted her to coach me for my whole time in college and not just a year," Frazier says. "But then I reflected and I was like, 'Wow, I get 365 days to train with her. I am so blessed.' And then when I really thought about it, I realized, I'm part of her last team ever. That gave me such motivation, such energy. I'm determined to make this the best season UCLA has ever had for her."
Kondos Field's swan song has become a motivator for the whole team. Everyone wants to send her out with the best parting gift they can think of -- a repeat national title. But the reality is, for so many Bruins, past and present, she already has made them feel like winners, no matter how they do in competition.
"Because of her, I've learned to enjoy every single day that I have, because tomorrow's not guaranteed, and I think Miss Val embodies that," Ohashi says. "She has her quote: 'Be anxious for nothing and grateful for all things.' I am truly grateful now for everything I have. People ask about her legacy, but I think she's already left it with the close bond she has with everyone she touches in her life.
"What's next for her? The whole world. She will literally take on everything. As long as she still has time to answer my FaceTimes, that is. I'm going to call her every day."