Miss Val hates gymnastics.
At least, that’s what people will tell you. Including Miss Val herself sometimes. She loves coaching. She loves heaping piles of life lessons and perspective upon unsuspecting 18-year-old elites who have never seen outside their own grips before. But watch gymnastics recreationally? She’d rather take a calculus test at a gum-chewing convention.
Perhaps that’s why it didn’t come as an inordinate shock today when Valorie Kondos Field announced that she will retire at the end of the 2019 season, after 29 years as the head coach of UCLA gymnastics. She has seemed to be moving in that direction for a while now, and…I mean…she hates gymnastics anyway, right?
Well…we’ll get to that.
If there can be just one defining characteristic of Miss Val’s UCLA, it’s THE SHOW. It has always been about THE SHOW. For better and for worse.
For better, UCLA is exceptionally conscious of how it presents itself to the world as a team, both gymnastically and non-gymnastically. If you go to UCLA, you’re going to be made into a performer, and you’re going to do a floor routine where you engage in battle with a heroin-addicted cocktail waitress only to learn that the cocktail waitress was you the whole time, whether you like it or not. You’re going to be mandatorily entertaining and kind of weird. It’s intrinsic in UCLA’s identity.
It’s no coincidence, then, that UCLA is typically the favorite team of international gymnerds who don’t even like NCAA (or claim not to), and the favorite team of olde-tyme purists who believe that nothing useful has happened in the world post-Mostepanova.
There’s something quite throwback about UCLA when it walks onto the floor. It’s very put together. You certainly won’t see an insane rat’s nest of a bun or a sloppy temp tattoo slapped on the cheek. A grizzled old 1970s Soviet coach would find the fewest things to murder about the UCLA team. That put-together, pristinely presented identity is pure Miss Val, and it extends to the routine performances themselves. There’s a refined sureness. Dare I even say…the calm confidence to do big beautiful gymnastics?
(It’s the Miss Val retirement post. I couldn’t possibly resist.)
Most sports laud the ability to win ugly. To find a way to defeat the opponent, even if it’s kind of lame and trashy. What separates gymnastics is that there’s no such thing as winning ugly. Winning ugly is called losing. With its exultation of the virtues of presentation, extension, execution, entertainment, and choreography—never wanting THE SHOW to turn ugly, or worse, boring—Miss Val’s UCLA has understood that central tenet and nostalgically connects itself to what this ridiculous art/sport hybrid is supposed to be.
At the same time, there’s modernity in UCLA’s throwback qualities. You won’t see the marching, lifeless robot army that characterized real-life throwback gymnastics (or present gymnastics, cough). Instead, you’ll see actual people behaving like actual people who enjoy what they do, the direction gymnastics is—hopefully—heading. That seeming contradiction between staid past and exuberant future is quite fitting for the era of Miss Val, the gymnastics coach who hates gymnastics.
Even her nickname is a clash of styles: Miss Val. It’s half demonic 1940s ballet teacher, half drunk drag queen with six pineapples on her head. And that, somehow, is exactly the mashup you get when you watch a UCLA gymnastics meet.
You’ll note, in detailing the admirable qualities of UCLA gymnastics under Miss Val, I’m almost exclusively discussing what might be considered the associated trappings we see during competition—presentation, choreography, style and culture. Heavy focus on those aspects is an equally significant characteristic of the Val years and the UCLA identity. I haven’t even mentioned results or the number of championships yet, which seems quite fitting.
Especially in recent years, Miss Val’s UCLA has made a point of trying to tell you that it’s not really about the gymnastics. Or winning. Or hitting. Despite how great the gymnastics usually is. Quite consciously, that is presented as less important than the show, and less important than all the personal growth and team bonding we experienced along the way. Now let’s stand in a circle around this candle.
For a cynic like me, that makes UCLA a very easy target. We get that personal mental health and peace of mind is more important than hitting a double pike. But also that double pike.
It’s also why, if you talk to a Utah fan, or to the comments on this site, or to me in my more acidic moods, you will meet a coach in Miss Val who is too busy dancing around the floor and trying to be the star to bother coaching her own team on vault, too busy being a self-help guru to notice that her entire lineup fell on floor and the team is ranked 9th for no reason. All while we’re assured it’s totally OK to be ranked 9th because the year was so rewaaaaaaaaaaarding. With 11 a’s. Much life lesson. Many growth. Flash mob.
Besides THE SHOW, we must acknowledge the other unavoidable reputation UCLA has developed over the decades—the most frustrating team in college gymnastics. So, so talented. So, so lovely. Not always winning. Oh, the beautiful disasters we have lived through over the years, my friends. The teams that never quite reached their gymnastic potential, somehow even when they won the national championship. That was the 2018 team. Right up until that final routine of the season you were thinking, “Hmmm, so improved, but they never quite got it together, this team…” And then they won anyway. And we still don’t really know what to do with that information.
There was a bars rotation last February where UCLA had a 9.300, a 9.525, and two 10.000s, and it should go in the Smithsonian as the exhibit on UCLA gymnastics because it was just SO very UCLA. Painfully beautiful, able to be the best team in the history of time, speckled with perfect, and yet also scream-inducingly infuriating. The life of a UCLA watcher.
Until a year or so ago, those qualities—choreography, presentation, dancing, life lessons, frustration—would have been the end of a post called “The Miss Val Show,” but her last act deserves our attention. At a time of massive opportunity in gymnastics to change so many of the things that made “the horrible lives of elite gymnasts” a wildly accurate cliché, we have been met with thunderous silence by so many.
I think of all the other college coaches who know the same stories as Miss Val, have seen it firsthand from their own former elites or lived it themselves, and know exactly how bad things have been over the years. But, they won’t ever say anything for fear of rocking the boat and compromising their recruiting streams. Miss Val is the one who has actually been willing to talk and piss people off and (gasp) tell the truth about what everyone needs to do better. Is it still all about the show? Of course it is. But she’s using her show powers for good.
For all the aimless, misguided hand-wringing from people who claim to love gymnastics about “the reputation of the sport!” Miss Val seems to be one of the few who’s actually trying to save it.
Would that everyone hated gymnastics as much as Miss Val.