Kondos Field eyes seventh title

Like millions of others in the early 1970s, Valorie Kondos Field was rather transfixed by Russian gymnast Olga Korbut. Gee, she thought, maybe gymnastics would be fun …

Kondos Field was already seriously training in ballet and piano, plus riding horses. How many hours in the day did this kid think there were?

"I was 12, and my parents were like, 'No, you're not adding one more thing to your plate,' " Kondos Field said. "So I can't do anything [in gymnastics]. Well, I could probably do a cartwheel that looks OK."

But all that time in dance and music, plus being the daughter of a famed landscape painter, gave Kondos Field an insight into understanding gymnastics from an artistic and aesthetic perspective.

And that's how the girl whose schedule was too jam-packed to add balance beam, floor exercise, vault and uneven bars became the woman who presides over one of the top college gymnastics programs in the country. Kondos Field's UCLA Bruins are the defending NCAA champions, and as they begin their 2011 season this weekend, they'll do so without one of their biggest fans.

For many years, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden -- who passed away last summer -- attended the Bruins' gymnastics meets.

"He was such a purist about sports," Kondos Field said. "And he was enamored with the discipline of gymnastics. We became very good friends."

In fact, after her Bruins won the program's sixth NCAA team title in April, Kondos Field was eager to tell Wooden how the group had done it. During the season, the athletes had realized they were worrying too much about what other teams were doing, a particularly fruitless way to approach gymnastics.

So they went into what Kondos Field called, "the Bruin bubble:" Concentrate on your own routines and doing everything you can as well as possible.

That April night in Gainesville, Fla., on their last rotation -- floor exercise -- the Bruins weren't doing the math in their heads of exactly what scores they needed for the title.

Their coach knew, of course, and she watched as they stayed focused throughout each teammate's routine -- even though the Bruins actually had clinched the title before their last gymnast finished.

"We'd reached our goal: We hit 24-for-24 great routines," Kondos Field said. "The next morning, I called Coach Wooden, and said, 'You're going to love how we won this.' "

She explained the way the athletes had been so excited once they'd all finished -- not because they knew they had the championship, but because everyone had competed so well.

"And he said, 'It seems that each of your athletes reached their competitive greatness at the top of the pyramid,' " Kondos Field recalled of Wooden referencing his "Pyramid of Success." "And I said, 'Yes, they really did.' "

Of course, Wooden had coached a sport he'd grown up playing. But Kondos Field's coaching career has been in a sport she learned through observation and assimilation.

"I couldn't come into it with an ego; I didn't know anything," she said of getting a start as a dance coach with a club gymnastics team in her native Sacramento when she was still just a teenager.

Actually, her real introduction to gymnastics came just before that: She was looking for a summer job, and was hired to play piano for floor exercise routines. While doing that, she noticed the athletes' poses as they competed and would relate to them in dance terms.

The club's coach, Jim Stephenson, realized what Kondos Field could bring to his gymnasts from the world of dance. Stephenson, who went on to coach at Minnesota -- his wife, Meg, is still coaching there -- taught Kondos Field about the sport.

"He's a sculptor, and my dad is an artist," Kondos Field said. "So Jim took me around events and talked about gymnastics through an artist's eye. And he used terminology that I'd grown up with. So it was serendipitous that Jim was the first coach I worked for."

Kondos Field continued to pursue dance, though, and became a professional ballet performer. Her father, Gregory Kondos, will be 88 in April and is still a very active artist who is known in particular for his work in shades of blue … and you could say his daughter is, too. Bruin blue became her primary color when she left ballet and was hired at UCLA in 1983 as assistant coach and choreographer for the team.

"I've figured out how to coach gymnastics, and I can see it well," she said. "But one of the best questions you can ask an athlete when you're trying to help them fix a skill is, 'What do you feel? What do you think?'

"Too many times, coaches think they know what it feels like, and they become dictators and forget to ask the athlete what they feel. I started coaching by asking a lot of questions, so I still do that."

Kondos Field, who is married to UCLA associate athletic director Bobby Field, became the Bruins' head coach in 1991. UCLA won its first NCAA team title in 1997, and has subsequently been champion in 2000, '01, '03, '04 and last season.

The 2001 team included past Olympians such as Jamie Dantzscher and Kristen Maloney of the United States and Yvonne Tousek of Canada. Kondos Field points to that time period as when it became more common for athletes to pursue college gymnastics after the Olympics, although that meant bypassing some financial opportunities, such as endorsements, following the Summer Games to maintain NCAA eligibility.

"It made a difference in the gymnastics landscape," Kondos Field said. "They did their homework before making the decision. They asked some the 1996 Olympians, 'How much money did you really make after paying taxes and coaches?' And even after winning a gold medal, most of them didn't come out with much more than a scholarship is worth at UCLA.

"So Jamie and Kristen were among those first Olympians to come to college instead [of turning professional]. They flew right from Sydney, Australia, to school in September [2000]. Even though they were part of a team, competing for the U.S., it's not the same as being in college with others day in and day out. When we won the national championship that year, Jamie said in the press conference, 'Competing in college was 10 times more stressful than the Olympics, but it was also 10 times more exciting.' "

That was because of the true feeling of "team," which is one of the things that Kondos Field loves most about gymnastics. She has another Olympian on her squad now, 2008 Beijing Games silver medalist Samantha Peszek. The freshman from Indianapolis will miss the first part of the season with a foot fracture.

The Bruins are also without 2010 NCAA vault champion and Pac-10 gymnast of the year Vanessa Zamarripa, a junior from Illinois. She tore her left Achilles' tendon in early December and will miss the season.

Still, Kondos Field is optimistic and actually looks forward to seeing how much the rest of the Bruins are able to fill the gaps. Among their top performers is expected to be 2010 NCAA floor exercise champion Brittani McCullough, a senior nursing major who has endured her own odyssey of injuries. Other All-Americans returning are Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, Aisha Gerber and Niki Tom.

The Bruins will compete at Utah on Friday and then host the Pac-10 Showcase on Sunday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion. Last season, the Bruins ended Georgia's five-year run of consecutive NCAA team titles. Past champs Alabama, Georgia and UCLA should all be in the mix again; those schools and Utah have combined to win every team national championship since the NCAA began sanctioning women's gymnastics in 1982.

But maybe another school might win for the first time this year?

"With us not having Vanessa, I think Florida on paper is the most talented," Kondos Field said. "They don't have the most experience, but we didn't either when we won our first national championship. I think Stanford and Oklahoma could also be contenders. But the field is wide open this year."

And after two decades as the Bruins' coach, Kondos Field still sounds as enthusiastic as you might imagine she once did at age 12 when approaching her parents with, "Hey, how about if I add gymnastics, too?"

It didn't quite work out the way she might have imagined then, but gymnastics indeed became her life's work.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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