How a Ballet Dancer Reinvented UCLA Gymnastics, Survived Cancer, and Inspired a Community

Miss Val can’t teach you to cartwheel, but she has changed how young gymnasts think about the sport—and themselves

MISS VAL CAUGHT one of her girls staring at her breasts. It was May 2014, and Miss Val, the woman responsible for transforming UCLA gymnastics into one of the country’s elite programs, was about to begin her 22nd year as head coach. After waiting a week while her gymnastics team dealt with final exams, she had just informed them that she had been diagnosed with HER2-positive cancer, a particularly aggressive form. They were young women. They had their own secret fears and horror stories passed on to them by mothers and aunts and Lifetime movies, manifested in real time by the balance beam phenom who stared at Miss Val—hardly anybody calls her Valorie Kondos Field—with an oscillation of wonder and dread in her eyes. Now all of them were fixated on her breasts, which prompted Miss Val to entertain a dangerous notion.

Before she dared act on it, there was some thinking to be done, things to consider. What she was about to do could easily become an HR issue. She had momentary fears that someone might turn her in, and those fears were not unfounded. In the dark conga line of scandals that preoccupy an America aspiring to be great again, the field house transgressions of college sports hold a spot near the front of that line, just behind the ample rumps of political misconduct and celebrity sexting. Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s ruination of Happy Valley. The operations director of the Louisville basketball team paying escorts in exchange for having sex with the players. The Baylor football sexual assault convictions.

Photo by Angie Wang/Daily Bruin

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Those scandals and others had breached the once-closed society of NCAA sports. Now there are watchdogs watching the watchdogs. Miss Val knew the potential consequences— civil lawsuits, criminal charges…dismissal. She had won six national championships. Was she about to destroy any chance to try for another?

There to coach and educate the young women on her team, Miss Val could no longer allow them to live with the constructs of their cartwheeling imaginations. So she asked them if they wanted to feel what the malignant tumor in her breast was like. Dance-crazy floor gymnast Sadiqua Bynum extended her hand for her coach’s sports bra, then remarked to the others how weird it was to feel Miss Val’s breast.

“No,” Miss Val corrected her. “You’re feeling what a malignant tumor feels like.”

Her cancer gone today, Miss Val explains why she put her career on the line: “I wanted to reveal as much as I could so they could see that a diagnosis like this isn’t a death sentence and that it doesn’t mean that you’re going to become something different. That part of me said, ‘I don’t give a shit about who might hear about it. This is life and death. So I don’t care.’ I did it for the girls.” And after coaching through the five-hour chemotherapy sessions, Miss Val had another decision to make: a lumpectomy followed by radiation treatment, which might or might not be successful; a single mastectomy; or a double mastectomy. She chose the last because there was less downtime and she could get back to her team sooner.

VALORIE KONDOS FIELD has an abiding love for dance and pasta. Poised before a plate of seafood linguine at Fabrocini’s Beverly Glen, she savors the aroma of butter and brine like a Buddhist nun with Wonder Woman hair and the eyes of Laura Mars. Then she digs in. Between the squid and the mussels, she finds time to tell me about her other passion.

“When I was little, I saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev perform Giselle,” she says, referring to the midcentury ballet stars. “I was mesmerized and wanted to be Margot Fonteyn. Years later I saw Baryshnikov and couldn’t believe he did 15 pirouettes in a row. Then I saw Leslie Caron in Gigi, and wanted to be her. After high school, I danced with the Capital City Ballet in Sacramento. I told you: dancing and pasta.” She did. But if Miss Val’s record says anything about it—those six national championships, 13 Pac-12 championships, and four Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards—a zeal for gymnastics can’t be too far behind the linguine with clams. Maybe she could teach me a cartwheel.

Miss Val pauses to mate a twirl of pasta with a mussel, then trains her eyes on me and says, “The truth is I’m really not a fan of gymnastics.” Miss Val had been a professional dancer since she was 12 years old. The fact is, the Sacramento native didn’t even have a passing acquaintance with gymnastics until the age of 22: She was about to begin rehearsals for her first season with the Washington Ballet company in D.C. when she heard there was a job opening on UCLA’s gymnastics team for a dance coach.

KNOWN AS THE godmother of women’s collegiate sports, Judith Holland has a knack for making unpopular decisions. She became athletic director of UCLA’s women’s program a few years after the 1972 passage of Title IX, which sought to eliminate discrimination in schools on the basis of gender. By 1981, Holland felt that little had changed. Among other slights, the number of sports scholarships for females was woefully lower than it was for males, and female athletes still weren’t eligible for academic tutoring at colleges like the guys were (guys probably needed it more, but that’s another argument for another time). So she bolted from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women—of which she was the former president—and signed up UCLA in the newly created NCAA division for women. A year later Holland decided that in order for true equality to exist between the men’s and women’s athletic programs at UCLA, they had to be joined under the same organization—a concept received with a lustful derision more fitting for a visit from Traveler, the USC horse mascot, at a Bruins home game. It was around this time, when disco danced its last hustle, that Miss Val did her bourrée into college gymnastics at UCLA.

Not long after being hired in 1982, she and her boss began to confide in each other. “Val had been hired as a dance instructor to work with the head coach and the team to, you know, make it femmy. Normally I don’t get close to assistant coaches,” Holland tells me . “But number one, the head coach was not very communicative, so I had to know what was going on. And number two, as you know, Val is very open and genuinely friendly, so I kind of couldn’t resist. I mean, the girls called her Miss Val.”

The nickname, which recalls how ballet instructors are often referred to, began out of something other than adoration. As an assistant coach there to help the gymnasts choreograph their routines, Miss Val introduced the concept of dance to the team.

“No one’s ever talked to these kids about the balance beam being a stage,” Miss Val says. “Just because it’s four inches wide doesn’t mean it’s not a stage.” One day early on, she took her team gymnasts to the ballet room. “And one of the smart-ass kids said, ‘Are we supposed to call you Miss Val?’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘Sure, that’d be great.’ ”

But in the summer of 1989, Miss Val left her dance coach job at UCLA. She had been involved with a cotton and melon farmer and moved to Fresno to be with him. “I was in a very serious relationship with Farmer George. Our grandmothers worked together in the same tomato cannery when they came from Greece,” she says. “So, of course, our families thought we were a match made in heaven.”

About two months after Miss Val moved to Fresno, the other slipper dropped: Judith Holland decided to not renew the contract for Jerry Tomlinson, her women’s gymnastics head coach. “Normally when I dismiss a head coach, I have someone in mind. But in this case, I didn’t. I did feel that we needed to make a change in our gymnastics program,” Holland says. “I interviewed a couple of guys, and I was not happy with any of them. Then one night Miss Val just popped into my mind.”

It took a UCLA women’s gymnastics secretary dozens of calls and a few long days to locate Miss Val up in Fresno. Holland recalls that when they finally got her on the phone, “We made some small talk about Val’s engagement, then I said, ‘Would you be interested in being the head coach of the UCLA gymnastics team?’ Absolute silence. Then, finally, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ ”

Miss Val, who hardly knew the difference between an overhand grip and an underhand grip on the bars when she began, wasn’t the only incredulous one. “I got a lot of grief—a lot of grief,” says Holland. “The gymnastics world is a very small world. Everybody knows everybody.” The edicts ranged from balefully dismissive (“You won’t be successful with her”) to comically reductive (“Dancers don’t know how to recruit”). But Miss Val was more than a good dancer.

“Her commitment to her student athletes,” UCLA football coach Jim Mora tells me, “is not just at being the best gymnasts they can be but making sure that they have every opportunity in life to develop as young women.” Mora, who knows a little bit about what it takes to get the most out of an athlete, picked Miss Val to coach the White Team for the annual spring showcase of UCLA’s football squad at Drake Stadium.

Photo by Mackenzie Possee/Daily Bruin

“I have to say that I never give pregame speeches to my athletes,” Miss Val tells me, “because frankly I think it invites panic. But this was football, and the last thing I wanted to do was insult the legacy of Bear Bryant—I was wearing the kind of hat he wore. So I had the players sit in a circle around me. And I told them that when we get up and walk out on the field, unified and holding hands, it will say everything about how seriously we will take this game. Also, I expected a Powerade bath when we win.” At one point during the game, Miss Val got so into pushing the team that Mora had to remind her to stay off the field. The White Team won, and she got her bath.

“To me, her greatest quality was that she knew her gymnasts so well. She would talk to them, they would talk to her, and she was an open line of communication. That’s what you want in a head coach,” Holland says. Miss Val ended her relationship with the farmer and took the job. Seven years later she won her first national championship and married former UCLA football defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Bobby Field.

WE ALL HAVE our spinning plates we’re trying to keep aloft. An NCAA women’s gymnastics coach has flying saucers—little big women with highly developed, fast-twitch muscles and vaulting hormones who defy the laws of nature as an afterthought. Some come with eating disorders; others, with Olympic gold medals and a pop diva’s sense of entitlement, and all of them compete in a sport where wobbling gets you laughed at on ESPN and gravity usually wins.

Before joining the UCLA gymnastics team in 2015, Katelyn Ohashi was a four-time member of USA Gymnastics’ Junior National Team. While she may have had one of the world’s most difficult balance beam routines (including a full-twisting back layout and a piked full-in dismount), Ohashi has the smile of a Disney heroine and an involuntary giggle that could sway a hanging judge. Unfortunately neither provided much of a defense against red meat coaches who were looking for tens.

“My former coach?” the diminutive Ohashi says, picking over a chicken wrap in the UCLA student union while freshman sorority pledges are pounding down chili fries and jumbo Cokes. “I weighed 70 pounds. But he’d say, ‘You look like you swallowed a pig or an elephant. Don’t eat dinner.’ I was already borderline anorexic and eating nothing but veggies and hummus. So when I came to UCLA, I was rebellious because I had been told what to do for so long. And when I first met Miss Val, I told her, ‘Whatever you tell me, I wanna do the opposite.’ ”

Early on Ohashi made good on her threat. During a weekend break from competition, she got drunk. “And a lot of my teammates got drunk with me,” she says, blushing, which is a coquettish way of saying she led the charge. Miss Val blew a gasket, but as much as anything it was because Ohashi didn’t seem to recognize how much influence she had on her teammates.

“Kate was a natural leader,” Miss Val says. “I told her, ‘You can’t turn that off. You do bad, they do bad. You do your job, and they will follow you to the end of the earth.’ ” Ohashi had had a lot of different coaches, but she’d never experienced Miss Val’s approach before. “She pushes you to express yourself in many different ways, which fits with our diverse culture, where other teams would tell you to tone down,” Ohashi says. While Miss Val’s free-spirited dance commune for the oppressed sounds like Camelot in Westwood, her gymnasts know who’s in charge. “I wouldn’t say that she intimidates us,” Ohashi adds, her smile no longer present on the lower half of her face, “but she’ll let you know when she’s mad without saying a word.”

She’s referring to Miss Val’s eyes; every gymnast I met on the team mentioned them. They can be translucent and inviting, as if all is water and she has an unquenchable thirst, or they can turn opaque and flashing, eyes that make a good case for cold fusion. Not long ago Miss Val had dinner with Ohashi and her boyfriend, Audie Omotosho, a UCLA wide receiver. When Omotosho innocently answered a question meant for his girlfriend, he got the Miss Val stare, the eyes of a snake handler. “Never let anyone, least of all a boyfriend, speak for you,” she later admonished Ohashi.

Coach Mora—known for giving hell to his players (some for good reason)—speaks quietly about Miss Val’s influence: “I learned from her that there is a way to be very, very demanding but to do it in a loving fashion. Discipline with a loving spirit.”

AT A PAULEY PAVILION meet between UCLA and Stanford, the Cardinal’s coach, Kristen Smyth, is wearing team sweats and a look of concentration that could bend a fork. Miss Val is wearing an A.L.C. little black dress from Bloomingdale’s and Kate Spade four-inch heels. The woman responsible for Miss Val’s sens de la mode was her dance instructor, Ingrid Carricker.

“Miss Ingrid entered the studio every day with her hair done, her makeup flawless, her leotard matching her dance skirt. She took great care in her daily preparation to teach our class, and it made me feel that we were important, that we meant something to her. Maybe Miss Ingrid had a passionate boyfriend waiting for her after every lesson, I dunno, but I think she did it for us,” Miss Val says. Her eyes translucent and sublime, she gestures at her team of 16, dancing in place, sporting hairstyles, lipstick, earrings, and eye shadow fit for Rose Bowl queens. “I do preach what I practice,” she adds, “and I have a number of rules, from no gum and no hair wispies in competition, to making sure their makeup reads well on camera and into the stands.”

It’s called presentation, and according to Miss Val, it’s not just about how others see you but how much it can potentially liberate you. She mentions UCLA gymnast Sadiqua Bynum, who graduated last year: “She joined the team in 2012 as a very strong black young woman who was a little nondescript. Her skills were off the charts, but she looked like a biology student in a leotard until she shaved her hair into a Mohawk and just owned her look—a strikingly beautiful young woman and a fiercely commanding presence. Sadiqua won the Pac-12 championship for us last season.”

For Madison Preston, who’s entering her third season on the team, Miss Val was one of the reasons she decided to go to UCLA. “Because she’s so open and willing to help anybody grow,” she tells me, “I’ve become ten times a better person than the day I walked in here.”

With UCLA comfortably ahead on points, the team collectively focuses on one another’s performances, waiting for somebody to be awarded that elusive ten. Madison Kocian dusts the strips of her dowel grips with powdered chalk, bangs her hands together, and approaches the uneven bars. Expectations are high; Kocian was a 2015 uneven bars world champion and won a gold medal as part of the “Final Five” at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Kocian makes eye contact with Miss Val, who shrugs and smiles. No pep talk, no last-minute tips on how to stick the landing. Her coach, who had zero knowledge of gymnastics when she was hired, still doesn’t know all that much about technique. She leaves that up to the assistant coaches. Her thing is performance, emotion, and being the Pied Piper-ess of young women dying to express themselves in a sport that historically taught them to do otherwise.

As I watch Miss Val taking in Kocian’s performance, she has the detached stare of someone whose mind is elsewhere. And she’ll be the first to admit it. She’s thinking about her athletes—all of them, about one girl’s problems with her boyfriend, about another whose promiscuity is destroying her self-respect, and another who wants to retire at less than her best. If not caring is the new hope in this day and age, well, Miss Val is hopeless.

Waiting for Kocian’s score to be posted, Miss Val sways to music with her team, their eyes glued on the score box, hers taking in their giddy anticipation, their swirling exultation with being among the living. A ten lights up, and the roof flies off Pauley Pavilion. When Kocian’s teammates have exhausted themselves mobbing her, Miss Val envelops her in her arms and kisses the top of her head. Is Coach happy? She releases Kocian to her team, then gives her answer: “Absolute perfection is not possible. And being judged by another human being is 100 percent subjective. In my world, success is being prepared well enough to be calm and confident onstage.”

Sauntering off on her four-inch heels, she briefly turns back to me: “Oh, and by the way? I still can’t teach a cartwheel. You don’t want me to teach you a cartwheel. It’s not going to be very good.”

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