For previously-undefeated UCLA Gymnastics, losing to Oklahoma on the road last week stung. Even habitually diplomatic junior Kyla Ross admitted it.
“It didn’t feel good to lose,” she said.
But the Bruins agreed that the reality check set them up for success.
“Having those mistakes and not winning was what our team needed because we got to figure out what we needed to work on,” senior Katelyn Ohashi said. “To have it happen last meet was great because we still had two home meets to fix everything.”
In the first of those two home meets Sunday afternoon, the Bruins came roaring back, setting a season high 198.325 that tied No. 1 Oklahoma’s season-best mark. They credit the recovery in part to a much-improved beam rotation—though they’re careful to point out that there’s still plenty of room to grow, a realistic outlook that will reassure fans who questioned some of their scores on that event.
Beam was the topic of some “pretty intense” conversations at team meetings this week according to head coach Valorie Kondos Field, who felt that her current beam squad wasn’t taking ownership of the event in the way that athletes in past seasons have. Ohashi, who usually anchors the event, agreed.
“We just talked about how last year we were the greatest beam team in the nation. It felt like we were riding that from last year instead of working for it this year,” she said.
The other factor to the Bruins’ recovery this week was returning home to Westwood and to the loyal crowd in Pauley Pavilion, which turned out in force for Sunday’s meet.
“It was so amazing,” sophomore Nia Dennis said. “That energy was crazy. We all fed off of it, and it was really good to have us all trusting each other and knowing even the audience had our backs. You can let go and be free.”
Ross, who is a local product and grew up coming to UCLA meets, is amazed at the transformation of the home meet experience in her lifetime. “Coming from club I thought that [the meet experience in the 2000s] was so fun,” she said. “But to have something like this is so special because it’s not just us who’s brought life to the sport, it’s everyone who’s come before us, all the people who built up what UCLA gymnastics is and especially Miss Val.”
For Kondos Field, building up the audiences over the last decade has been a conscious project, and it’s paying off. Almost 13,000 fans attended Sunday’s meet, breaking the UCLA single-meet attendance record.
“It’s not just that you do great gymnastics,” she said ruefully. “We won four championships in five years in the early 2000s and our fan base did not grow.”
But she’s finally seemed to crack the code.
“It’s really, really important to orchestrate, as much as we can, getting the people that are in the stands feeling like they’re a part of it,” she said. “I always appreciate if a basketball player hits a three point shot and looks at the crowd. You’re connected then, and that’s what makes people want to come back.”
She has her athletes doing a whole lot more than looking at the crowd though. UCLA gymnasts encourage the audience to dance along during their floor routines. When asked about why she was directing the crowd before hers, Dennis laughed. “Yeah, Miss Val told me to do it!”
They run up and down the stadium steps to give high fives to the crowd, a move Kondos Field attributes to alumna Danusia Francis. And Sunday Kondos Field even decided to bring audience members onto the floor.
“I just got this crazy idea to bring a student down on the floor. I don’t know if that’s legal or not, but they’re not going to fire me at this point,” she said, referencing her impending retirement.
But it’s little things like that—that may seem trivial to the coaches and gymnasts, that put the students just a few feet closer than they would be normally—that pay off.
“They all said the same thing: This is the coolest thing I’ve experienced at UCLA,” Kondos Field said. “It’s stuff that we take for granted. They were overwhelmed.”
The Bruins have, for the most part, shrugged off questions about Kondos Field’s impending retirement with cliches about “taking it one meet at a time” and “enjoying every moment.” But with the legendary coach’s final meet in Pauley only six days away, the emotions are starting to hit them.
“I’m starting to get a little bit more sad each time,” Dennis said. “She has a new chapter in her life, and I’m so honored and blessed to be able to help her end this chapter. I’m so sad and happy at the same time.”
It’s a lot for the head coach to process too, and on top of the personal aspects, she’s dealing with more outside attention than she has in her whole career. She describes the media opportunities as “absolutely wonderful” for the sport at large as well as for her own team, but admits that it would be overwhelming if she wasn’t so at peace with her decision to retire.
“When you prepare well and when there are no regrets or what-ifs, we’re in the eye of the storm, and it’s calm,” she said. “All of this is happening around me, and I absolutely know that you get in that place because you’ve prepared well.”
Ohashi feels the same about saying her own goodbye to Pauley next weekend.
“I’m ready. Obviously I might cry a little bit, but I’m just trying to soak in literally every moment with the team,” she said. “I am ready for the next chapter in my life when it comes after season, and I can’t wait to soak in the home crowd one more time.”
Kondos Field still couldn’t help but get a little sentimental talking about what the place has meant to her in her almost 40 years at UCLA.
“The athletes talk about the magic of Pauley; this place is hallowed ground,” she said. “It’s not just about Coach Wooden and all the great athletes that came in here. It is about the fact that the greatest humans on the planet have chosen to share their message in this arena: the Dalai Lama, the Grateful Dead—oh, let’s not forget Justin Bieber! You feel this energy of the excellence of the human beings that have been on that floor. I’ve been walking through those doors for 37 years, and I still feel that.”
Article by Rebecca Scally
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