By Susan Williams

In this series, Inside Gymnastics talks with current and former athletes, coaches and other members of the community about what they’d like to see in terms of solutions for the next chapter of the sport in the United States, in their own words. We hope to be a part of the dialog that helps move the sport forward in a way that will change the culture and allow for all participants to thrive.

Feature Photo by Lloyd Smith

Subscribe Today

When Kerry Perry took the reigns as president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, she embarked on what was described as a “listening tour” for several months to gain perspective about what needed to be done to bring about change and begin a new era of USA Gymnastics. But many in the sport, including defending Olympic Champion Simone Biles, felt as though they were not being heard. Perry was criticized for offering few solutions with limited (and fumbled) messaging. This ultimately lead to her resignation just nine months into her tenure and following criticism from new United States Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland. 

All of this after an independent review of USAG by Deborah Daniels, who published the following conclusion in her report:

“USA Gymnastics needs to undergo a complete cultural change, permeating the entire organization and communicated to the field in all its actions. USA Gymnastics needs to take action to ensure that this change in culture also is fully embraced by the clubs that host member coaches, instructors and athletes.” 

As USAG once again looks for a new leader and attempts to make the changes called for in the Daniels Report, what exactly do those actively involved in the gymnastics community want to see from the organization?

In this series, Inside Gymnastics talks with current and former athletes, coaches and other members of the community about what they’d like to see in terms of solutions for the next chapter of the sport in the United States, in their own words. We hope to be a part of the dialog that helps move the sport forward in a way that will change the culture and allow for all participants to thrive.

Here, Inside talked to UCLA Gymnastics Head Coach Valorie Kondos Field about what she thinks the future of the sport should look like…


Miss Val with some of her 2018 UCLA gymnasts.

Miss Val with some of the 2018 UCLA gymnasts. (UCLA)

Known as Miss Val to her athletes–and just about everyone else–Valorie Kondos Field has created a gymnastics dynasty at UCLA, becoming only the fourth school to ever claim an NCAA women’s gymnastics team title when she first did so in 1997. Since then, the Bruins have gone on to win seven NCAA crowns under Kondos Field’s leadership, including their dramatic victory in 2018.

A dancer by training, Miss Val’s coaching approach has always been about more than just gymnastics. Referring to her style as, “life choreography,” Kondos Field most recently put her years of wisdom into an “advice and inspiration” book titled Life is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance.

A coach of many of the self-identified survivors of Larry Nassar, Kondos Field has been insistent about her desire for change in the sport and is an unwavering advocate for her athletes. She has also been outspoken about how emotionally and physically fragile many of her former elite gymnasts are when they arrive on campus. In February, Kondos Field dedicated UCLA’s dual meet with then-defending champion Oklahoma to honoring survivors of sexual abuse under the “Together We Rise” banner. Since then, she has remained steadfast in her goal to facilitate healing in the sport, being a leading voice in the conversation about the changes necessary to make that happen.

Inside Gymnastics: What do you think USA Gymnastics needs to do to move forward and make positive changes?

Valorie Kondos Field: Two things are imperative. One is that we need to regroup as a gymnastics family. I’m talking about all of our USA Gymnastics alumni, not just the Olympians, not just the medalists, but all the former National Team members who haven’t really been included in the discussion.

We’re so fractured right now, with the different factions all trying to talk over each other. Our history is in pieces, and we need to bring it back. There must be some sort of outreach, some sort of a massive reunion, and it must happen in the next year.

Second, I feel like we’ve been in an age of enlightenment and education when it comes to things like emotional and [sexual] abuse, and we’ve been in that for the last 10-15 years, but our gymnastics culture never caught on. A few things did change at the [Karolyi] Ranch, but there was never a comprehensive plan on how to train these superheroes—and that’s what our athletes are—to be more than just great gymnasts. We weren’t nurturing the whole person.

We have so many clinics about how to teach a skill on bars or floor, and we need that same sort of enthusiasm from coaches about learning what athletes need emotionally and physically. We need to bring in the mental component, the meditative component.

I think we’ve done a good job coaching the gymnastics, and now it’s time for us to embrace our gymnasts as whole people—and the only way to do that is through education. A coach that has been coaching forever, or a young coach coming up that is trying to emulate them, you’re not going to change their minds by just saying, “Do this instead.” You have to prove scientifically why this way works better.

Once a coach realizes that rest is not being lazy, rest is active healing, we’re going to have healthier boys and girls, mentally and physically… We’re in a new era of understanding that when you give information to young people, and you help them be part of the process, they’re much more invested in what they’re trying to do. They start to take ownership of the sport, of their body. We haven’t given athletes those choices, that education.

I mean, we still have coaches out there that don’t want their athletes drinking water during a workout. The way that we talk about food and body composition is still so very wrong. Food is fuel. That’s how you have to look at it.

Imagine an environment where every day in the gym is not only gymnastics education, but also mental health education, nutritional education.

Inside: What kind of leader do you think the sport needs to make that shift?

(UCLA)

Miss Val: Some people have said to me, “You should do it, Val,” and, you know, I honestly don’t know if I would even be good at it. What I do best, day in and day out, is help develop young women into the type of people they want to be. To let them know that every single thing they do is a choice, and every choice is going to determine the life they lead.

You can’t make strides if you’ve got a handful of victims that are questioning everything you do on social media.

You need to either get a group of people in there that is going to work together to determine how we move on, or a new CEO that understands all of this and has a connection with our history. We need someone who has a really clear vision of where we are, and someone who is excited about how we can move forward in a way that’s healthy, emotionally and physically.

You have to get someone with compassion. Someone with a [high] emotional IQ. Someone that’s going to be a human being and reach out. That’s the first thing that has to be done. You can’t make strides if you’ve got a handful of victims that are questioning everything you do on social media. It really is truth and reconciliation; both sides coming to the table, saying, “This is what we did, and here’s what we are doing to get through it.”

It has to be someone who can bring all the different fragments together. What our alumni need. What our elite coaches need. The person at the top needs to really listen to how victims feel. How those who aren’t victims feel. How parents feel.

The first thing I learned as a leader is that what they don’t know about you, they’ll make up. Kerry Perry kept talking about transparency, but there was none. Things have to be different right away. It seems like whoever vetted and selected Kerry Perry, they did so because they didn’t want too much change. In college, when you’ve got a new head coach, they can bring in whoever they want. If people want to stay, they have to re-interview for their job. Maybe that’s what needs to happen.

Inside: Do you think USAG needs to start over completely and wipe the slate clean?

Miss Val: I mean, there are some people that are still there, like Ron Galimore, that… why? If he really wrote those emails–was a part of that chain with [former USAG president and CEO] Steve Penny–which made up excuses for Larry Nassar, then I don’t understand how he can stay.

You can develop champions in ways that are compassionate and supportive.

I think that there has to be accountability for everyone. There needs to be an investigation, and we have to know who protected the system over the athletes…The breakdown of integrity came from the fact that people who were supposed to be Penny’s bosses—the Board, the USOC—didn’t do their job. And why didn’t they? Those claims that they didn’t because all they cared about was winning and money need to be vetted.

But I don’t think everyone needs to be discarded, or all lumped into one group… That handful of coaches who have coached in two or three quadrennials need to be appreciated and brought into the conversation of how we move forward. I think you have to re-program them. You have this handful of old guard that digs in their heels, and you have to prove to them through science, through studies, that there is a better way.

You know, at UCLA our athletes are very joyful, but our gym is not a playground. We work hard. I have tough rules, but those rules come from an educated foundation. I’m very big on curfew, because I’ve studied the impact of sleep. I’m big on nutrition, because I work with one of the best nutritionists in the world, and I know the impact it has on fitness and health. There are non-negotiables on our team, and most of them have to do with honesty, dignity and respect, for their teammates and themselves.

Miss Val’s book “Life is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance” will be available October 2, 2018.

Athletes can still achieve greatness while building up what are labeled as life skills. You can develop champions in ways that are compassionate and supportive.

We also need to talk about what is our definition of success? Because for the last 30 years it has only been medals.

There are a lot of victims out there who just want to be heard. They just want an apology from somebody, anybody. Mary Lee Tracy was here, and on the way into the gym she ran into Kyla [Ross] and Madison [Kocian], and it was very awkward. But then, Mary Lee just looked at them and said, “Girls, I apologize for whatever role I had in you being hurt, for whatever I did that allowed this to thrive.” And they just softened, instantly. That’s all they wanted to hear. That’s what needs to be said, by somebody, to every single victim. Nobody has to shoulder the blame, but we need to apologize.

I have to apologize. I didn’t do enough. I complained to Kerry Perry, Steve Penny, Mary Lee and anybody that would listen. I complained about the culture we had allowed to develop and how it was protected because we were winning. Instead of figuring out a solution, I just kept [complaining] to the same people. I never thought about going to the USOC, going to the Senate. I never thought of going to them and showing them what I saw—what we all saw–as college coaches: shells of human beings, stripped of a voice.

At the Ranch, when Martha would make a correction, if a gymnast said, “OK,” they got yelled at. They were supposed to just listen. So they quickly decided, “OK, I won’t say anything at all.”

They all say the same thing: that they were made to feel invisible. [1992 Olympian] Betty Okino put it the most poetically, “No one cared about us in the after.” You were only worthwhile to them when you were winning medals. And that? That has to change.

Inside: Many have cited subjective team selection as a reason gymnasts were afraid to speak up. Do you think that needs to change?

Miss Val: I don’t know. I mean, that’s what we hired Martha Karolyi to do—use her gut. That’s what I do. There are times my decisions about who to put up in a meet don’t make sense based on numbers, but if my gut says Katelyn Ohashi is going to hit beam and this kid isn’t, even if she has been in practice, then I’m going to put Katelyn up instead.

Miss Val hugs UCLA gymnast and 2016 Olympic gold and silver medalist Madison Kocian. (Lloyd Smith, Inside Gymnastics)

If UCLA told me we had to have an intrasquad every Wednesday and the top six on each event are who got to compete, then I’d do it, but I don’t know if it would produce championships.

I do think there needs to be a system in place where coaches don’t feel like they need to stay silent about injuries because they want their athletes to remain in favor. That promoted a culture of distrust on many different levels.

I feel like we all need to take a deep breath and exhale and realize how blessed we all are to do what we love to do. Then, let’s start having non-judgmental conversations about how we move forward. Give people a chance to say their peace. Their truth. Why they made the choices they did. You know, I’m a different coach than I was 10 years ago. People do change. Hopefully we all evolve.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


SUBSCRIBE TODAY TO BE GUARANTEED OUR WORLDS COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE!