Valorie Kondos Field tells her athletes that changed plans aren't scary – they're exciting.
And she would know.
Kondos Field, whom the nation has nicknamed “Miss Val,” has captained seven national championship-winning teams during her time with UCLA gymnastics. She has also garnered 19 Pac-12 titles in her 36 years as a Bruin.
But that was never a part of her plan.
After graduating from high school, Kondos Field sought out a career as a professional dancer.
She spent four years as a ballet dancer with the Sacramento Ballet, Capitol Ballet Company and The Washington Ballet before she began playing the piano for floor routines and working as a dance coach.
In 1982, when she was 22 years old, Kondos Field contacted UCLA Athletics regarding an open choreographer position with the school's gymnastics program. Based on what was known about Kondos Field's background as a dancer, the university offered her the job, as well as a full scholarship to attend the university while she worked. She started the 1983 season as both the Bruins' choreographer and assistant coach.
Kondos Field said attending UCLA had been her goal when she was in high school, so the decision to end her dancing career and move to Los Angeles was not a hard one.
“I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, my dream come true,’” Kondos Field said. “I stopped dancing and came (to UCLA) and it was just like adult Disneyland. Nothing has changed since then. If anything, the illustriousness of it all has just grown brighter, at least for me.”
Kondos Field had her work cut out for her, considering she had no experience in the world of gymnastics.
She coached like a dancer − not a gymnast. To Kondos Field, the balance beam and the floor were stages for performance. Her athletes weren't used to the concept of dance being incorporated into their sport, so they resisted.
After seven seasons of attempting to merge the dance world with collegiate gymnastics, Kondos Field said she had had enough. She decided to leave her choreographer position and moved away from Westwood in 1989.
In 1990, UCLA Athletics chose not to renew its contract with then-coach Jerry Tomlinson and began to search for a new coach. Kondos Field, who spent her time off in Fresno, California, with her fiance, was in the mix.
She got the offer, and she accepted. Kondos Field said she took it as a challenge to herself.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” Kondos Field said. “I told them I didn't know the first thing about gymnastics; (but) my priority isn't to win at all costs, it’s to develop champions in life, through sport. If I develop champions in life, that will translate to the competition floor and we will win. And we have.”
Kondos Field’s first step was to surround herself with renowned gymnastics talent to fill in the gaps where she needed it. She brought on Scott Bull as her co-coach.
UCLA had claimed the then-Pac-10 conference title in gymnastics every year since the title's introduction in 1987, but lost it for the first time in 1991.
Kondos Field and Bull led the Bruins to one Pac-10 title − in 1993 − before Bull left the program after the 1994 season, leaving Kondos Field alone four years into her tenure.
"When she was struggling to find her own feet and trying to guide the program in the right direction, coach (John) Wooden told her, 'You'll make a poor coach Wooden, but you'll make a great Miss Val,'" said associate head coach and future head coach Chris Waller. "And, Miss Val has a standard that is the highest."
In her first season as the sole head coach, UCLA took home the conference title once again. The Bruins won their first ever NCAA championship two years later, in 1997.
Bull's departure didn't stop Kondos Field from bringing in reinforcements. Her current staff is made up of former Olympic gymnast Waller, former Illinois NCAA champion Randy Lane, and “Fierce Five” Olympic team member Jordyn Wieber.
UCLA won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2000 and 2001, then again in 2003 and 2004. The Bruins were champions in 2010, but faced an seven-year drought before winning their seventh national title in 2018.
"I always had a pretty simple approach: Work harder than anybody, show up earliest, leave last," Waller said. "But, (Kondos Field's) approach is (winning championships) by supporting every person to be the best person they can be. She said that since life changes and challenges change, the answers change. I thought that was crazy. But, having been here for 17 years, it turns out that it makes a heck of a lot of sense. We've seen that."
Five months after claiming her final NCAA title as head coach of UCLA, Kondos Field announced her plans to retire at the end of the 2019 season.
"I have always thought of life as a grand adventure," Kondos Field said via Twitter. "(And) I have been motivated to delve deeper into the many areas of life that inspire me."
Over the course of her career, Kondos Field has been sought out as a coach for a variety of gymnastics talent − with rosters that have included world champions, U.S. national team members, and Olympic gold medalists. But her goal of creating "superheroes" in and out of the gym never changed.
Amy Smith, a former collegiate gymnast under Kondos Field, was named team captain in 1996 and helped lead the Bruins to their first-ever national championship in 1997. After a stint as an assistant coach at UCLA, Smith is now the coach of Utah State gymnastics.
“Her style stuck with me,” Smith said. “If you coach the person and you help things to go well in their life, then the gymnastics is really easy. I’ve taken that along with me in developing my coaching philosophy and it’s been such a strong, powerful foundation to work from. I use her creativity and try to think outside of the box, like her. ”
Kondos Field said it’s harder and more time-consuming to coach the person, not just the athlete, and that’s why so many coaches opt not to.
But that is the only way she knows how.
“My first impression when she was recruiting me was that she is only worried about what we can take away from this program, into (our) careers and (our) lives after gymnastics,” said junior Madison Kocian. “She's always told us that failure doesn't exist − it's either you succeed or you learn from your mistakes. So, she goes into everything, no matter what, with a positive and uplifting mindset, and we have learned to, too.”
Following the announcement of her retirement, Kondos Field's celebrity grew across the country.
During the 2019 season, her program was partially credited with bringing gymnastics to the forefront of competitive athletics in the United States. The Bruins broke attendance records across the nation and recorded their opponents' highest attendance in each of their road meets. The 2019 NCAA championship saw the highest attendance in the history of the event.
Kondos Field said that one of the things that drew her to UCLA and made her decide to stick around was the campus' leadership culture. It was the best place she could imagine herself honing her coaching philosophy.
She said the people she is leaving behind in Westwood are all leaders − at least in her eyes.
“Everyone at the university needs to know: Followers are not attracted to UCLA, it’s too hard,” Kondos Field said. “The difference between you and a follower is that you don't see it as hard and scary, you see it as an exciting challenge. If you can embrace that, that is how you will live your life, and you will have a more brilliant and exciting life, so don't ever take it for granted.”
As Pac-12 Gymnastics Coach of the Century and a UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, Kondos Field has left her mark both on the world of collegiate gymnastics and on her alma mater.
After spending the majority of her adult life at UCLA, Kondos Field said she is ready to leave with no regrets − having accomplished her goal for her last season.
“Because of its standard of excellence in everything, UCLA has shaped who I am,” Kondos Field said. “I'm not going to be leaving anything behind when I do retire, I'm taking it all with me.”