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UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi became a viral sensation after a video of her Michael Jackson-themed floor routine hit Twitter and left people marveling at her smiley, perfect-10 performance. But people also quickly realized there was more to Ohashi’s story than a set of impressive gymnastics moves. In a video from The Players’ Tribune, Ohashi talks about a time when she competed in elite gymnastics, and how the pressure of the sport weighed on her and made her miserable. After suffering a set of injuries, Ohashi eventually dropped down to the collegiate level and ended up joining the UCLA Gymnastics team.
It was there that she met UCLA Head Coach Valorie Kondos Field, who Ohashi says helped bring joy back into the sport. Below, Kondos Field, who’s held the position for 29 years, talks to ELLE.com about that viral video and why it’s essential for athletes to have fun.
How has it been with Katelyn’s video going viral? It’s not the first time people have talked about the team.
Valorie Kondos Field: Katelyn, she had a great routine last year as well but … it happened to be in February, which was the height of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. So I think, because of that, people just weren’t in a place where they wanted to hear more gymnastics. But with her routine, it’s not even just the routine, it’s her celebrity that is blowing up.
And I’m just so thrilled on so many levels. What the world sees is this beautiful, talented, young gymnast who’s pure joy and does extremely difficult athletics but seems to be able to add a lot of fun and joy to it. But the really cool part is that she has a third dimension to her, that she is really socially conscious. She read a part of her poetry [on Good Morning America] about body shaming, and it was so poignant and heartfelt. I’ve had so many people texting me just saying, “Gosh, that just cut to my core.” And how great it is to see a celebrity that is more than just a perfect 10 and a score.
What do you think the difference is now that we’re a year out from the Larry Nassar trial?
I think we’re in a time right now that the world is craving something to feel joyful about. The whole world, not just the United States. But it’s like we’re starved for something to make us feel, like a real feel-good movie. This is what Katelyn is bringing in a minute-and-a-half snippet.
It’s also amazing to see, in the video, all her teammates doing the dance moves along with her. Does everyone know each others’ routines?
Yes. They pride themselves on that. In fact, we have some days in the gym where they just want to do each others’ floor routines. And I think that’s really cool because it’s not Kate’s sole possession of that routine, it’s her team’s. Their roles are on the sidelines and her’s is on the floor. And then when another one of her teammates does a routine, then she gets the floor and Kate’s on the sideline. To me, I grew up as a ballet dancer, and that’s just how you do things. You’re in the corps, then you’re in the wings, then you’re on stage. And you just kind of move in and out, there’s not this segregation. And I love it. I really do because the whole team feels a part of this success.
How do you keep gymnastics a positive place instead of something that’s toxic or brutal?
Well I think a lot of it comes down to my background as a dancer. And I didn’t grow up winning. I didn’t grow up in the world of athletics. I didn’t grow up where if you didn’t finish on top of the podium, then you weren’t allowed to feel like a success. I grew up on stage, where there’s no winning, there’s just preparation. And you prepare to the best of your ability, and your definition of success is the calm and confidence that you have being on stage.
So that’s how I’ve always trained our athletes. We talk about how the end goal is to win a national championship every year. But then let’s focus on the process, and let’s make the process bigger than the end goal. I talk to them all the time about how to live a really powerful and successful life. You need to be able to look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and list all the things that you did in your day. Were you respectful to people? Were you kind? Were you respectful to yourself? Did you work hard? Did you have integrity? Did you learn something? Were you curious about the world? Did you make yourself better today, just by one percent? And if you can say yes, then great. You’ve had a great day. And hopefully by the end of the year, you’ll be able to check off more great days than not. And that’s a successful life. The trophies, the winning, the medals, that’s all just bling.
How are you feeling about this being your last year as head coach? What do you hope to leave behind with this team?
April 20th will be my last day. My feelings are very pure, they’re not mixed at all. I don’t need to win another championship to feel successful. I’m going to be 60 next year, and there are so many more things that I want to do in life while I still have the energy and the inspiration to do them. That is the only reason I’m retiring. I’m not retiring because I don’t like my job. I love my job.
And it’s kind of crazy to think that I’m stepping away when we’re riding the crest of this wave, coming off a championship, coming off of Katelyn’s celebrity, and team celebrity. But people are going, “Don’t you want to ride this high for at least a few more years?” And it’s like, no, because it’s really not about that. I hope my legacy is that I’ve shown the world that you can produce excellence and greatness in a positive, healthy, joyful manner.
Why do you think joy is so important?
I had a coach two years ago, we finished fourth at the national championships, and he came up to me and he said, “You know, I really think you’d do better if you weren’t having so much fun on the floor.” I love it when people criticize me as long as they’re not mean-spirited because then it’s self-analysis. You’ve got to look in the mirror and go, “Hmm, maybe they’re right.” So I said, “Well, who do you think has the most fun?” He said, “Peng-Peng Lee.” And I was like, “Yeah, she just got a 10 on beam. Who’s the next person that has the most fun? Katelyn Ohashi? Oh yeah, she just PRed on floor.” And we went through the whole team. The only two girls on my team that did not have fun were the ones that had the worst meets. So then this last year when we won he came up to me and he said, “Okay, I’m a jackass, I don’t know anything. Congratulations.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.