By Vasilis Papoutsis
LOS ANGELES, CA – The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Women’s Gymnastics team has won the NCAA Champaign Regional, a competition that coach Valorie Kondos Field considers ”the most stressful meet of the year” and is now preparing for the NCAA Championships in St. Louis are set to begin April 14.
Her teams have won six National Championships and despite the low scoring at the Regional, Field believes that if they have a great meet at the finals, they still have a chance to win.
Field’s impressive career as UCLA’s women’s gymnastics coach has exceeded a lot of people’s expectations, including her own. As a young girl she suffered from scoliosis, a condition of the spine in which the backbone curves to the side. Doctors recommended dancing as a way to strengthen the back muscles and she began taking ballet lessons at age 7.
She grew up in Sacramento to parents Gregory Kondos, an accomplished landscape painter, and Rosie Thalas, a hairdresser. Rosie was the Lodi Festival queen when her future husband first noticed her and decided to pursue her. “My father was like a Greek Picasso, very talented and very charming but also very volatile as many artists are. My mother was a saint,” Field said.
Along with her ballet lessons, Field also took piano lessons and practiced Greek folk dancing at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Sacramento. Her piano lessons paid off when she got a summer job at age 16 playing piano for floor exercises at Agilities in Carmichael, CA. “While I was playing the piano I could not stop talking and giving instructions to the athletes and eventually I became a dance coach,” she said. When she graduated high school her father told her to either go to college full time or work as a dancer full time, but not do both. “My father encouraged me to live my life large and follow my dreams,” she said.
She decided to pursue dancing and worked as a professional dancer with the Sacramento Ballet, and Capital City Ballet in Washington DC. In 1983 she was hired as a choreographer and assistant coach for the women’s gymnastics team. When in 1991 UCLA Athletic Director Dr. Judy Holland appointed Field in the head coaching position, the disapproval of the gymnastics world was loud and clear. To hire a choreographer as a gymnastics head coach was an unorthodox move. Field had her own doubts: “I was not sure if I could be successful. I told them I will take the job for a year until they find a more qualified candidate. And on that premise, I accepted the position.”
Despite all her efforts, the second year the team finished in a worse position than in the first. Field was deeply disappointed and decided that it was time to quit. “I was not succeeding as a coach and I was walking to the athletic director’s office to resign. On my way there I stopped by the store and while walking around I glanced at [renowned UCLA basketball coach John] Wooden’s book A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and off the Court and started reading it.” At that moment, she decided to go back to her office and kept reading. While reconsidering her decision to quit, “I began asking myself what qualities do I bring to the job? I realized that a lot of the traits that I had developed as a ballet dancer can be applied to the field of gymnastics as well,” she said. That was the turning point. She did not quit but she “stopped mimicking other coaches and decided to follow my instincts and be myself.” Success soon followed and after winning a couple of Pacific-12 championships in 1997, she won her first NCAA National Championship. In 1998, she, along with her husband, UCLA Associate Athletic Director Bobby Field, invited Coach Wooden to their home for dinner even though they had never met him before. The coach accepted and he and Field clicked immediately. As Humphrey Bogart famously said in Casablanca “it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship” that lasted for many years.
Wooden was not only Field’s mentor and beloved friend, but he also attended meets on a regular basis even at age 95 when he did not have a ride, he drove himself to Westwood for a meet because he wanted to keep his promise.
Today, Valorie Kondos-Field is the most decorated coach in women gymnastics. In addition to six national NCAA titles, her teams have won 13 Pac -12 championships. She has been awarded National Coach of the Year honors 4 times and been Pac -12 Coach of the Year 5 times. She also had the distinct honor to be named Pac -12 Coach of the Century.
The most important factor in her success? “Discipline. Confidence and attention to detail are also very important but discipline is on the top of the list. The pain of discipline is never as great as the pain of regret.”She mostly embraces Wooden’s “confidence and steady demeanor. He never had to ‘switch’ to his coaching personality. He was always himself. He was funny, polite and respectful, he was never mean or insulting.”
Field, who is affectionately called “Miss Val”is well known for her nurturing personality, a trait she inherited from her Greek mother. Stella Savvidou, who joined the team in 2016 after graduating high school in Australia and competing for the Cyprus National Team, wanted to attend an American university with a great gymnastics program that would also be a great academic school. Savvidou, who had three offers from other universities including Yale, turned them down once she met UCLA’s coach. “After meeting Coach Val I knew I wanted to come to UCLA. She was a caring and loving person, she touched my heart.” Her mother, Chrysanthi, added to the coach’s praises.“Once I met Coach Val, the choice was obvious. We felt that anytime in the sphere of Valorie’s influence would be invaluable. Everything that has happened since only strengthen our conviction.”
Most coaches emphasize winning at all costs. Field loves winning too, but she puts emphasis on effort above all. “If we perform the best we can and don’t win on a particular day I am okay with that.If we don’t put our best effort forward then I have a problem with that.” Her ballet background has contributed to craft floor routines that excite audiences. At a recent meet at Pauley Pavilion more than 12,000 people showed up. UCLA women gymnastics is also a hit in social media as they have the largest social media in the all women collegiate sports ranking No.1 on both Instagram and Twitter. “We have the most entertaining floor routines. They evolve as the season progresses,”said Savvidou, who has a ballet background as well.
CHAMP OFF THE COURT TOO
Field is also a champion off the court. When she got the call from her doctor that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, she pulled off the freeway and started thinking of what will come next. “I heard a voice in my head saying to be anxious for nothing and grateful for everything. God was speaking to me, telling me to fight.
“Breast cancer changed my life for the better in every way possible. I knew that if I did the treatment and kept a positive attitude I would have the chance to overcome it, so I switched my attitude completely. I was grateful that I had the ‘opportunity’ to do chemotherapy so I said to myself and others that I get to have chemo, not that I have to have chemo.” Field called the medical facility she received chemotherapy a “chemo spa” because the word spa implies pampering. And she conveys this message to the attendees of her speeches time and time again.
Field is in the process of writing her first book, Choreograph Your Life. “People kept asking me ‘where can I buy your book?’ I decided to write one, I want to help people empower themselves.” Field was inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010. Wooden was there. “When I received the induction letter I thought to myself, maybe I am a good coach now.” Moderation aside, Field is not just a good coach, she has attained legendary status in women gymnastics. Even the great John Wooden would agree.