Dec. 9, 2011
By Amy Hughes
"We're going old school," said UCLA head gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field.
"It's the Retro Super Crew!" added volunteer assistant coach Amy Smith.
"I feel like the third time is the charm," said assistant coach Randy Lane.
When Jim Foody left the UCLA gymnastics staff at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, Kondos Field had to face the task of finding the perfect puzzle-pieces to complete her coaching staff for 2011-12, a season that will begin with a "Meet the Team" event on Sunday at the Wooden Center.
What happened from there has resulted in a coaching staff at least as talented and accomplished as the group of gymnasts that earned a preseason No. 1 ranking for the Bruins.
Kondos Field, who is in her 22nd year as UCLA's head coach, is one of the most successful coaches in collegiate gymnastics, a four-time national coach of the year who has led the Bruins to six NCAA titles. Chris Waller, the program's Associate Head Coach in his 10th year on staff, won three NCAA titles as a Bruin gymnast, competed in the 1992 Olympics, coached at the 2004 Olympics and coached the UCLA women to three NCAA team titles. The duo will be joined this upcoming season by assistant coach Randy Lane and volunteer assistant Amy Smith.
Lane, who has previously served on Kondos Field's staff from 1992-94 and 1998-2001, returns to Westwood for a third time after spending a decade away from UCLA. In that time away, he first built a successful acupuncture practice in Florida, then returned to coaching as an assistant to UCLA alumna Rhonda Faehn at Florida, then on to an associate head coaching position at Michigan State.
Smith, who was the team captain for UCLA's first NCAA Championship squad in 1997, was an assistant coach at Missouri from 2007-11 and helped guide the Tigers to their first NCAA Championship appearance in 2010 while serving as the team chorographer and balance beam coach.
Kondos Field was having dinner with Lane at the Level 10 National Championships in May when the idea to bring him back on staff came to her. "We were sitting out on the patio having dinner and talking about who I was going to hire and what I was looking for," she recalled. "As I was describing what I was looking for, I looked at him and said `Wait a minute. I'm describing you. Why don't you come back?'"
Lane had been applying and interviewing for head coaching positions and held an associate head coaching position at Michigan State. On paper, taking an assistant coaching job at UCLA was a step backwards.
"I literally went out to Michigan and recruited him," said Kondos Field. "I went to talk to him so he could hear a little bit more about where the program is now compared to where the program was 10 years ago when he was last here. I told him that I can't imagine that even a head coaching job would be as fulfilling as coming back with the position we're in right now, with the talent we have and hosting the National Championships next year. It's this perfect storm coming together, and I'd love for him to be a part of that."
"I have always felt like Val has been my mentor in this whole journey of coaching," said Lane. "I think that we have learned and grown together."
One major difference between 2001 and 2011 is Waller's presence on the staff as the Associate Head Coach.
"Randy used to be my right-hand man, and now Chris is my right-hand man," said Kondos Field. "How do I go to having two right-hand people, and would we be able to work out the pecking order of all of this without it feeling like there's a pecking order?"
Prior to Lane's return, he and Waller talked through any potential complications that could have arisen.
"I had only really known Chris as a competitor and never as a coach," said Lane. "Now, having worked alongside him, it's interesting to see that his personality as a coach is completely different than how I had perceived him as an athlete, because he was a very intense athlete.
"I think he and I both thought there might be some issues, but I think we're both pleasantly surprised that there haven't been any issues at all. I think 10 years ago, our egos could have gotten in the way, but I could be completely wrong because after working with him for the past few months, I have such respect for him, and I feel like he has the same respect for me. It is probably the best working relationship with another male coach that I've ever been in."
Waller affirmed the mutual respect.
"Because both of us have been independently successful in a number of ways in the sport, we work incredibly well together," he said. "There's mutual respect across all aspects of the sport and in dealing with the collegiate athlete. That being said, we have a blast in the gym as well. It's a lot of fun getting the girls to work hard. We can both be serious as well as goofy in the gym, and both of us are willing to do whatever it takes to get the girls to the next level."
For Smith, returning to her alma mater is just as much of a dream-come-true now as it was as a student-athlete more than a decade ago.
"I came back to learn from Val," said Smith. "I wanted to come back and work with her and learn from her. It's such a special thing to be able to be back at my alma mater with people who know me really well."
Smith, an Oregon native, wanted to start her collegiate gymnastics career at UCLA, but the recruiting process came down to a decision between Smith, a Level 10 gymnast, and Leah Homma, a Canadian national champion.
"They would have been stupid to go with me," joked Smith, who went to Oklahoma to start her collegiate career.
After a year, she was able to transfer to UCLA, where she became a two-year team captain and an All-American, earning first-team honors on floor exercise in 1995 and 1997 and on vault in 1997. From there, she served as an undergraduate assistant coach at UCLA in 1998 before becoming an established choreographer for schools in the SEC, choreographing six All-Americans at Florida from 2003-06.
"There is no one who has more passion about gymnastics than Amy Smith," said Kondos Field. "She absolutely eats, breathes, loves gymnastics, and she was really hungry to come back and learn about all aspects of the program. She has made it clear from day one that she doesn't just want to be a beam coach or a chorographer. She wants to learn everything.
"She is constantly picking Chris's brain about technique and just really zeroing in on every little detail that goes into a program and making a program successful. I think that she's getting more information every day and more experience than she could ever have imagined because I trust her and I rely on her. I trust that she knows what the foundations of this program are because she lived it. We're as thrilled to have her back as she is to be back."
Smith's days are jam-packed, between UCLA and the Broadway Gymnastics School in Los Angeles.
"I don't think there is a waking hour that I'm not working," said Smith. "I'm working seven days a week. I get up at 6 and I'm home by 9 and in bed by 10. Every waking moment I'm working, and I'm loving every minute of it.
"It's so easy for me to get up and do it because of the people," she added. "It's the coaching staff, the girls on the team; everybody is on the same page and so dialed in. You bring your `A-game' every day, and you get better and better. It's pretty cool to be a part of it, and I appreciate it greatly. I'm getting so much out of it."
"Amy and Randy bring a good perspective of what it's like to coach a team of athletes that aren't necessarily in the top-10 in the country," said Kondos Field. "What Chris and I take for granted a lot, Amy and Randy will look at each other and shake their heads and just start laughing."
Lane added, "We have had these other experiences where maybe you don't have as many athletes to choose from when it comes to competition season or you may be in a program where you're not well-supported. It probably helps Val and Chris to some degree because they probably go `Well, if Amy and Randy aren't thinking this is such a big issue, then maybe we're over-thinking it.'"
As those differences blend together into a highly experienced and close-knit coaching staff, it can only benefit the nation's top team in competition. Meanwhile, it's obvious that the entire UCLA gymnastics coaching staff enjoys every day in the office or the gym.
"It is a really, really good synergy amongst this staff," said Kondos Field. "Randy, Chris, Amy and I have all matured along the same life philosophies even though we haven't been around each other on a daily basis."
Said Smith, "To be able to come back here and work with Val and with Chris, who is just phenomenal and an amazing human being and coach, and then you throw Randy into the mix, and it gets pretty ridiculous who I get to come and work with every day. I get to work with people who appreciate me and push me and help me to get better. It's very exciting."
"I just feel fortunate," said Lane. "I've been up for head coaching jobs, and I just feel like this is the perfect fit. I think it probably was all along, and I think that Val is great about surrounding herself with people who she not only trusts but who help complete her.
I think this coaching staff is really a complete coaching staff in a lot of ways. I feel fortunate to be part of a coaching staff that gets along and is on the same journey together to help this team win a national championship. It has been a great journey so far."