With only a handful of members of the press present at UCLA’s home meet versus Utah, the dais at the front of the media room didn’t seem particularly necessary. Head coach Valorie Kondos-Field took questions from the front row of media seating, leaning over the back of a folding chair. But sophomore Felicia Hano made a beeline for the elevated seats with bemused teammate Kyla Ross in tow. Giggling, Ross clarified, “We didn’t even have to be up here, Fish just wanted the microphone.”
When Kondos-Field walked into the media room five minutes later, she took in the seating arrangement with a wry smile and instructed the press to make up some more questions for Hano to give her a few more minutes in the spotlight. (When asked, the two agreed that the aliens Hano battles in her floor routine are the green kind.)
Hano’s comfort level in Pauley is one of numerous changes Kondos-Field identified in her team from last year. Reflecting on the podium moment, she half-jokingly commented, “Last year I didn’t realize you were like this. I didn’t know you were fun.” As valuable as Hano’s transformation from a nervy freshman to a first-team All-American has been to the team, it’s part of a larger phenomenon that is leading the Bruins to their best season in years.
The last time the Bruins ended the regular season ranked in the top three nationally was 2010. That’s also the last time UCLA won a national championship, and Kondos-Field drew parallels between that team and her current one, noting a kind of independent drive that set her championship teams apart. “We’ve had great athletes, we’ve had people who really want it, but it’s just always been the coaches driving it. This year, they’re owning it.”
Sophomores Settling In
Much of the Bruins’ success this year has been due to the efforts of their star sophomore class. Things haven’t always been straightforward for this cohort—Felicia Hano, Madison Kocian and Anna and Grace Glenn have all struggled with injuries in their time in Westwood—but the second-years are flourishing in the 2018 season, accounting for 40% of the team’s competitive routines.
Handling such a talented cohort as they simultaneously adjust to college gymnastics unsurprisingly presents some challenges to a coach. Kondos-Field remarked that she felt like she was “herding cats” for most of the season. Hano might have had the most challenging transition; she was injured on floor in her first meet in Pauley Pavilion and had to sit out until postseason.
Kondos-Field described Hano’s injury as the consequence of being overwhelmed in Pauley and going “deer in the headlights.” If that was the case, she certainly isn’t struggling any more: asked about her freshman season, she said that “[Sitting out for most of the season] definitely fueled my fire for this year, but I ended on a pretty positive note last year and wanted to keep that energy going until this year.” With twelve scores of 9.900 or better so far this season, she is undeniably succeeding.
Aside from feeling more settled, the benefits of a full collegiate offseason helped the sophomore class to flourish, and having to be in routine shape by early December for Meet the Bruins was even more beneficial. Hano linked preparation for this event with improved floor endurance, which has been a trouble spot for the Bruins in the past. Kyla Ross added, “Last year after finishing postseason, we started working our skills and upgrades during spring quarter of school, so we had all of May and June to work on upgrades and then rest our bodies in the summer.”
“This year there’s no herding of cats,” Kondos-Field said. “This year they’re all dialed in.”
The UCLA roster includes two U.S. Olympians who have shined in 2018, and their competitive drive is as much of an asset to the team as the strength of their routines. Kyla Ross “really doesn’t get tight,” according to Kondos-Field, and the statistics back it up: Ross has scored under 9.800 only seven times in her collegiate career, out of a total 83 routines. However, managing these gymnasts’ mentalities carries challenges of its own.
At several points throughout the season, the coaching staff elected to take Ross off three events to allow her to rest while testing some new options. To some gymnasts, a week of reduced responsibility in midseason might be a relief, especially amidst a busy academic term, but not for Ross. “To be honest,” she confessed, “I do not like doing one event… I was very, very bored. It’s much easier for me to be on all events—my mind isn’t wandering, and I’m very focused.”
The coaches face similar challenges with Madison Kocian, who was initially restricted to beam due to a nagging shoulder injury she had been dealing with since before the 2016 Olympics. She’s since fought to add floor back and is even working on returning on bars by the time regionals and nationals roll around.
To coaches, the biggest challenge of having such a deep roster is keeping each competitor feeling “vitally important” when these changes are made or when it proves challenging to break into a lineup. It was an issue Kondos-Field struggled with on floor with Kocian as the Olympic medalist was pulled from the lineup two meets in a row in midseason “How do you keep her hungry and excited and motivated when she was pulled the last two weeks?”
Super Six Bound
The Bruins entered 2018 with a national championship on their minds; neither gymnasts nor coaches have been offering “one meet at a time” platitudes this season. Kondos-Field knows her team is capable of winning the title, but she’s also monitoring the weak spots: Her biggest concern is how the gymnasts react to lineup changes. “We’ll see how people who aren’t competing are affected, and if they can’t be 100-percent supportive, that starts breaking down that foundation.”
She spoke empathetically and realistically about the challenge it presents to a gymnast—especially on floor, where UCLA is realistically nine deep—to be pulled from the lineup, and that bitterness can develop among the team when a lineup athlete performs imperfectly. She feels that monitoring each gymnast’s attitude and keeping them positive is one of the most critical parts of her job.
As much UCLA’s team dynamic might require careful management, Kondos-Field feels that it’s her squad’s greatest strength. There was no small amount of pride on her face as she related how independently they drive their work in the gym. “We work out at 7:45 every morning and that energy you see on the floor, that fun? They’re like that every single day. We literally just sit back, give them technical corrections periodically and they drive it.”
The results that dynamic is producing are undebatable. The Bruins have earned multiple 198.00+ team scores for the first time since 2004, as well as earning perfect 10s for five distinct routines so far. Their season high score of 198.275 is second only to Oklahoma’s in national rankings, and with championship season now underway, Kondos-Field has her sights set at the very top.
“I’ve always said, you’re never going to be able to create that magic if they don’t do it for each other. When coaches can step back and the athletes drive the energy, that’s when the magic happens. And I haven’t felt this magic for about eight years.”
Article by Rebecca Scally