As a new season, decade and chapter of UCLA gymnastics draws near, the advice of the late John Wooden resonates through the coaching staff of the Bruins gymnastics team.
This was the advice given to new UCLA head coach Chris Waller from his predecessor Valorie Kondos Field, who was simply passing on the advice of Wooden—one of the most revered coaches in American history.
“He said to her, ‘You’ll be a terrible Coach Wooden, but you’ll be a great Miss Val.’ So she gave me the same advice—enjoy it, be yourself,” said Waller, who was on the UCLA coaching staff for 17 years before taking on the role of head coach.
However, being yourself while stepping into a position vacated by one of the most iconic coaches in gymnastics history is no easy task. Because Waller spent nearly two decades alongside Kondos Field building and evolving the Bruins gymnastics program, one of his biggest challenges is making sure he’s not just a “Miss Val 2.0.” While things on the surface may be different—such as Waller saying he has a louder, more outgoing leadership style—it’s the culture of authenticity he’s trying to instill in himself, his athletes and his coaching staff that he wants to use to usher in the Waller era of UCLA gymnastics.
“Something that is really important to me is that we are all really authentic with each other,” Waller said. “I want to build an environment on the team and a culture where the athletes [can] completely trust each other and be themselves. I really believe that the more a person can find their own uniqueness and express that within a team setting, the better person they’re going to be and the better the team’s going to be.”
But while change is necessary, it’s also important for Waller to help the athletes embrace the past. Waller was tasked with building a new coaching staff after two assistant coaches left the program, and ended up picking two individuals with previous ties to Bruins gymnastics.
Kristina Comforte, a former member of the gymnastics team, makes her return to UCLA in the role of associate head coach after stints at the University of Illinois and Illinois Gymnastics Institute.
“UCLA has always held a special place in my heart,” Comforte said. “Coming back is really special to me, and the girls have been really warm and accepting. It’s really just the icing on the cake.”
An addition to her many coaching strengths, Waller is particularly excited that Comforte already “speaks the UCLA language,” something “new” assistant coach Dom Palange does as well after he served as a volunteer assistant coach for the Bruins from 2014 to 2016. Waller thinks this familiarity with the culture and language of the Bruins will help the gymnasts with the transition.
“I wanted to bring coaches into the program who filled up weaknesses that I have…who brought strengths that complement each other and would relate to different athletes in different ways,” explained Waller, who had endless amounts of compliments for his new coaching staff.
Waller praised Palange for his ability to relate to the athletes from the perspective of one, and envies the approachability he gets from the team. New volunteer assistant coach BJ Das had Waller marvelling over her ability to find a balance between the energy and punctuality she brings to the gym each day, as well as her amazing choreography.
Comforte not only received praise from Waller for her professionalism, but also her natural ability to be authentic, one of Waller’s keys for the season. It likely stems from Comforte’s drive to instil that in her athletes by not just coaching them on the sport itself.
“I enjoy the life coaching side of it. I love that side of coaching a whole individual and getting behind everything besides just the technical side of gymnastics,” said Comforte, who credits her master’s degree in organizational leadership for helping her be a more well-rounded coach. “These girls are very mature in their gymnastics, so it’s really easy for me to communicate with them and figure out what works best for them.”
As a perennial gymternet favorite, expectations are high for the Bruins heading into 2020. They’re losing only two gymnasts from last year’s team that finished third at the NCAA championships, and added a strong freshman class to their roster. The bar has been set high for UCLA gymnastics by its coaches, too, knowing how well it can perform if each team member can simply “buy in” to the changes in the program.
“If we can build a culture that is gritty and authentic and fun, it’s going to be a kickass year,” Waller said. “It’s going to be a year that, yeah, it’s going to be successful, but it’s also going to be meaningful beyond whatever medals and awards we get, and that’s really important.”
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Article by Brandis Heffner
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