How a Ballet Dancer Brought Balance to U.C.L.A. Gymnastics

LOS ANGELES — By now, it’s clear from a number of investigations that women’s gymnastics in the United States has been tarnished by administrators who overvalued winning and coaches who did not know where the line existed between developing gymnasts and abusing them.

And yet while much of the gymnastics world has been spinning out of control, rocked by sensational courtroom testimony and other revelations, there has been a seeming oasis tucked into the campus of U.C.L.A. Many outside the sport learned that last month when Katelyn Ohashi stunned millions of YouTube viewers with her strength, sassiness and thrilling tumbling.

To those in the know, there was little surprise that Ohashi, once not far from an Olympic berth, rediscovered her joy of gymnastics at U.C.L.A., under a coach who cannot do a single pull-up.

Valorie Kondos Field, known as Miss Val to basically everyone, is the first to admit she is not a perfect coach. She is her own sort of taskmaster, and she has a number of rules for her student-athletes. No chewing gum. No hair-ties on the wrists. But she has long presented an alternative to the often joyless training environment that has become associated with the elite levels of the sport.

In Kondos Field’s gymnastics program, there is more talk about what the young women want to do after gymnastics rather than why they did or did not make an Olympic team.

To teach gymnasts to speak up and defend a point of view, Kondos Field arranges for debates about topics, such as, “Should U.C.L.A. become a nudist campus?” The routines become a vehicle for self-expression, which is how you end up with Ohashi moonwalking her way through a floor exercise.

“I know what it’s like to have to go through puberty in a leotard,” said Kondos Field, a former professional ballerina who had little experience in gymnastics instruction when she joined the program nearly four decades ago. “I know what it’s like to have disordered eating. I know what it’s like to have to go out there by yourself.”

Kondos Field’s presence has special import right now, and not simply because another routine by a U.C.L.A. gymnast became an internet sensation. She is retiring at the end of the season.

In 2014, Kondos Field learned she had breast cancer. She let her gymnasts feel the tumor in her breast because she wanted to help them understand that a setback was not an end. During chemotherapy, she worked on reframing her circumstances and considered what else she could accomplish. She is now considered cancer-free.

In her office, guests are encouraged to get comfortable on a worn, mustard-yellow couch that once belonged to Kondos Field’s hero, the U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden. The guests tell her what is going on in their lives as she sits in Wooden’s old captain’s chair. The word “gymnastics” may not even come up. That is fine.

Margzetta Frazier, a U.C.L.A. freshman and recent member of the United States national team, said Kondos Field and her staff were the only prospective collegiate coaches who spoke to her about life after gymnastics when she was being recruited.


Kondos Field during a U.C.L.A. gymnastics competition last month. The team has won seven national titles in the last two decades.CreditBen Liebenberg/Associated Press

“They didn’t bring up the Olympics,” she said. “They were like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’”

And where her gymnasts go, she will go, too, if necessary. At least eight gymnasts who were abused by Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, the former U.S.A. Gymnastics team doctor, later competed or worked for the U.C.L.A. team. Two of them, Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross — the only women to have won Olympic gold, world championship gold and N.C.A.A. titles — shared their stories on national television in August, with Kondos Field by their side.

Like any coach, Kondos Field may have her detractors, though they are not that easy to find. She and other N.C.A.A. gymnastics coaches adhere to methods that may be standard operational procedure in their sport — and other college sports, too — but might strike outsiders as overbearing. She monitors what the gymnasts eat for breakfast and how much they sleep. Those who break too many rules may be suspended from the team.

After the 2016 season, she railed against her team’s conditioning.

“I am not degrading you,” she recalled telling the gymnasts. “One reason why we’re not scoring higher is we’re not able to do better gymnastics because of our physical fitness.”

They won a national championship two years later.

Ohashi, who as a young teenager suffered from an eating disorder and was compared to “a bird that was too fat to lift itself off the ground,” called Kondos Field “my mentor, my mom, my sister, my best friend.’’

“She’s literally everything to me,’’ she added.

The team, like its counterparts at many other universities, participates in a grueling 14-meet schedule. Its scores are sometimes a point of contention. Some contend the U.C.L.A. gymnasts get a “leotard bonus” — a higher mark — simply because of the program’s status and its seven national championships since 1997. Others argue that Kondos Field’s intricate choreography can blind the judges to flaws.

Still, U.C.L.A. executes some of the most difficult and artistic gymnastics in the N.C.A.A.

Kondos Field, 59, was never a competitive gymnast. In a recent Instagram post, she hung from a set of chalky uneven bars, her feet cautiously tapping a mat as her Pilates instructor tried to encourage her to use her lat muscles when attempting that elusive pull-up.

Knowing where she needs help, Kondos Field relies on her assistants, including the Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber, to refine her athletes’ technical skills.

Kondos Field grew up in Sacramento and first set foot in a gym in 1976. The instructor did not need a dance instructor, but he hired her to play piano for the floor exercises.

“I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut as I’m playing,’’ she said. “I’m telling them: ‘Point your feet! Get your legs straight! Get your head up!’’’

U.C.L.A. eventually hired her as a choreographer in 1982. After the 1990 season, the senior associate athletic director, Judith Holland, dismissed the coach and decided that Kondos Field was the best person to take on the job and reinvent the gymnastics program, which had yet to win a national championship.

“I remember laughing out loud and saying, ‘You know I don’t know the first thing about gymnastics,’” Kondos Field recalled. “That came after I was catatonic for about 30 seconds.”

At first, she became a stereotype of a coach, acting as if she were always right. She continually demanded more from her athletes, but the team floundered and she planned to resign. Then she happened upon some of Wooden’s teachings. His words resonated, just as they do with nearly every coach who works at U.C.L.A., where, nearly a decade after he died, he remains the Wizard of Westwood.

“Success is a peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming,” Wooden once wrote. That mind-set became the ruling principle of Kondos Field’s program. Its effect is easy to detect.

“I’m willing to go out of my comfort zone,” said Gracie Kramer, who joined the team as a walk-on.


Coach Val giving advice to one of her gymnasts.CreditKayla Reefer for The New York Times

And Frazier, the U.C.L.A. freshman and national team member, has become increasingly open to discussing the pressures that her sport places on teenage girls.

“Elite gymnastics is messed up,’’ Frazier said. “I don’t care how many people come at me for that. Because they know it’s true. It’s decades of evil. And I feel bad saying that, because I love gymnastics and I’ve had some great coaches.”

Kondos Field does not disagree. She is appreciative when her gymnasts speak their minds. Sometimes, she said, when they arrive on campus, they think her basic questions are “a test” and they will get in trouble for answering them honestly.

Kocian, the Olympic gold medalist, agrees that happens. “I had always followed that elite mind-set of this is what you’re doing, you don’t have much of a say,” she said.

But Kondos Field does not want it to be that way. And she has developed a cult following among gymnastics fans. At a meet last month against Arizona State, they looped a concourse, waiting for Kondos Field to sign copies of her book, “Life Is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance.” Some own “Miss Val” PopSockets. One Twitter user even made a version of “The Last Supper,” with Kondos Field as Jesus and gymnasts as disciples.

The last meets are approaching, too, the last opportunities for Kondos Field, usually in inches-high heels, to lead the student section in mimicking the most memorable movements on the floor.

“I’m not retiring because I don’t like my job or I’m bored,” she said as she rattled off her goals: speaking engagements, promoting her book, maybe creating a Broadway musical. “But ever since I got cancer, I realized that we all have an expiration date. I just don’t know when mine is.”