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Still reeling from scandal, gymnastics rediscovers joy at UCLA

UCLA teammates cheer Margzetta Frazier's uneven bars routine at this month’s meet against Arizona State. Frazier opted out of a competitive path that could have put her in position to compete at the 2020 Olympics. (Allison Zaucha/For The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — It wasn’t until she fractured her back at age 16 that Katelyn Ohashi felt genuine relief. The injury was her ticket out of the constant berating and body blows of elite gymnastics. And she seized it, putting on hold the Olympic dreams that had consumed her childhood while she spent a full year weighing the costs.

Last month, Ohashi, now 21 and a senior on UCLA’s gymnastics team, resurfaced on a global stage via a video of her highflying, earth-quaking floor exercise that crackled with joy and earned a perfect “10” from awestruck judges.

The story of how Ohashi reclaimed her love of gymnastics unfolded the last four seasons at UCLA and is as unique as her floor routine’s infectious dance moves. But elements of her narrative have played out season after season at UCLA, where highly skilled gymnasts have flocked to work with the Bruins’ unorthodox coach, Valorie Kondos Field, in hopes of recapturing the joy that, for many, was stripped away by years of rigorous and, at times, abusive club training.

In a sport still reeling from the sexual abuse crimes committed by jailed USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, the UCLA team under Kondos Field has become a refuge — and is demonstrating that excellence in gymnastics can be cause of celebration.

A classical-ballerina-turned-choreographer who took over UCLA’s head coaching job in 1991, Kondos Field has led the Bruins to seven NCAA championships via a philosophy drawn from the teachings of her idol and mentor, late UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, and her own expertise in what makes a great performance, a healthy athlete and strong woman.

Kondos Field describes her process as “planting seeds” to build trust.

“The whole point of coaching is teaching. Teaching is letting people make decisions for themselves. And if they’re not making the right decision, letting them fail but not disrespecting them and not making them afraid to make a mistake again,” she said in an interview in her office, which is furnished with a golden sofa that once belonged to Wooden. “You can train champions to the highest level without demeaning them, disrespecting them and taking away their joy. You absolutely can.”

Known as “Miss Val” to gymnasts across the country, Kondos Field, at 59, retains the elegant comportment of a dancer, her arms in near perpetual Position 2 — wide open, as if poised for an embrace. Over the years, she has become a mother, mystic, shaman and magnet for gymnasts seeking the esprit of competing on a college team.

The team’s current roster includes two Olympic gold medalists, juniors Madison Kocian (2016 gold, silver) and Kyla Ross (2012 gold), and a third in assistant coach Jordyn Wieber (2012 gold). All were among the more than 300 Nassar victims, as were former Bruins Jamie Dantzscher, Jeanette Antolin and Mattie Larson. Others, such as Ohashi, suffered emotional and psychological abuse under club coaches whose techniques including body-shaming, incessant criticizing and ignoring.

Asked to describe Kondos Field, Ohashi calls her a “healer.”

“A lot of us that came [to UCLA] have been broken in some way, some form,” Ohashi said. “She tends to recruit a lot of elites and has been around awhile, so she has been around to help bring people up. To do that, she has to literally unravel everything from our past, take all this pain away and bring us from the bottom up. It’s like a rebuilding thing.”

Kocian committed to UCLA in 10th grade, excited about the university’s academic rigor and the warmth between the gymnasts and coach. It was in such stark contrast to the tension that was so petrifying at the Karolyi Ranch, the training base of Martha Karolyi, the former U.S. women’s national team coordinator, and her husband, Bela.

Exceptionally precocious, Kocian had reached elite status — the sport’s highest competitive level — at 12, which thrust her into competition with 16-year-old Olympic hopefuls at monthly camps at the remote Texas complex, where Karolyi demanded nothing less than perfection.

“It was very frightening,” Kocian recalled. “I remember getting a pit in my stomach when we would drive up because it’s so hard.”

The food was sparse, but most days she was too nervous to eat.

“You’re just sick to your stomach,” Kocian said. “Then everything else that happened there that was hidden — you’re definitely living in a dark hole. But when you go there when you’re so young, it’s like you’re brainwashed. You don’t know any different.”

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But her goal was making the 2016 Olympic team, and her injuries mounted as the team selection neared — a torn labrum, which she trained through, then a broken tibia that sidelined her for eight weeks.

On rough days, Kocian said, she would phone Kondos Field for an encouraging word, even though she wouldn’t enroll at UCLA for another two years. “There is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter what happens,” Kondos Field would tell her.

And those words, Kocian said, were what got her through.

UCLA freshman Margzetta Frazier had seen enough of the cauldron of elite gymnastics to opt out of a path that may well have led to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“It’s like selling your soul,” Frazier said with a smile, recounting the emotional wall she constructed to gird herself against the harshness of her club coaches — the yelling, the nitpicking, the freezing out.

Outwardly, she refused to let their criticism bother her, replying with a silent “Whatever!” muttered only to herself. Inside, she dangled rewards for her purgatory: In a few more hours of practice, she could take a nap; a few more days, she got a weekend; a few more years, she’d go to college.

But in the darkest times, when her body was breaking down under seven- and eight-hour practices and her friends were thinking about the prom, she thought more deeply about the everyday pleasures she was missing: a slice of cake on her birthday, a dinner roll at Thanksgiving, a Christmas cookie.

“Their intentions were to make me a champion,” Frazier said of Pennsylvania’s Parkettes, crediting the gym with helping her achieve her goals. “Of course, there can be a different way to do that. They didn’t want to be evil — or at least that’s what I want to believe.”

Ohashi returned to gymnastics after taking a year off following back surgery but soon decided against vying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

“The joy had been ripped away from me,” she said, “but deep down, I loved the competition floor. And I thought, ‘Gymnastics is literally the only thing I have.’ ”

So she contacted Kondos Field about competing for UCLA. She was nervous, unsure how to explain herself, unsure what to ask or what to expect.

They spoke for an hour.

“She asked me when was the last time I was happy,” Ohashi said. “I told her I couldn’t even remember — that it had to be when I was 11, before I ever turned elite.”

Archives: When will sex abuse in Olympic sports end?

In a subsequent meeting with Kondos Field and a team psychologist after enrolling at UCLA, Ohashi laid her goals bare. She wanted to compete for the Bruins; she just didn’t want to be great anymore. To her, greatness meant misery. It meant unrelenting pressure to win medals; it meant mental and verbal abuse.

“And you’re around all these other young females who are taking it,” Ohashi added. “So to be the deviant child that stands up, stands out and speaks out is something that isn’t encouraged or even seen.”

Not every UCLA gymnast carries this degree of baggage. The recruits come from two pipelines — Level 10 gymnastics, one rung below the elites, and the elites. It’s the latter group, in Kondos Field’s experience, that shows the more severe effects of harsh coaching methods. Some elites, of course, had supportive, humane coaches. But many who haven’t are wary of trusting adults, reticent to speak if a coach asks a question, fearing it’s a test or a trick. Or they might hide injuries, fearing they’ll have no value if they can’t produce.

For this, Kondos Field doesn’t blame the Karolyis, pointing out that their methods were what they knew, having been trained under a rigid system in communist Romania. The fault, she believes, lies with USA Gymnastics for giving the Karolyis free rein to mold young female gymnasts into Olympic medalists as they saw fit.

Kondos Field’s approach begins with building trust.

“Each case is different, but I think the human spirit wants to trust and be trusted,” she said. “I think the human spirit wants to know that they are unconditionally loved and that love won’t be taken away if they fall on beam. So, when they’re freshmen, I start planting seeds.”

One seed might be simply telling a wary freshman, “I like you as a person.” Another might be telling a freshman how much confidence she has in her.

And she constantly peppers her gymnasts with questions on topics that have nothing to do with gymnastics, as esoteric as possible, to prod their thinking and coax them out. What do they believe in? What do they want to do after college? Will they sing for her?

More than winning, she’s trying to cultivate individuality and personal growth — qualities that often are an anathema to command-and-control coaches. But with their star-studded lineup, the reigning NCAA champion Bruins win, too.

Indeed, the environment she provides UCLA gymnasts isn’t the sporting equivalent of coloring outside the lines. There is plenty of structure, high expectations and nonnegotiable rules, such as being on time.

The staff has two associates and one assistant coach who provide gymnastics expertise, as well as an athletic trainer and strength trainer, and each gymnast is queried daily about her hours of sleep, nutrition, level of pain.

At base, Kondos Field wants to spark their creativity, supplant their negative thoughts with positive ones and get them to take ownership of their lives.

For Frazier, it’s easy to love Bruins practice. With each session, she has removed bits of the protective wall she had erected, feeling free to flaunt what she calls her true “goofy” self. And she delights in slipping a new dance move in her beam routine as a surprise, to see if her teammates notice.

Kocian, 21, declared this her happiest year ever, which she attributes to the love among her teammates. And she marvels at the palpable difference it has made in her gymnastics.

“When you find joy and are doing something that you really, truly love — say, I’m dedicating my beam routine to someone else — it takes your mind off having to be perfect,” Kocian said. “When I was in the elite atmosphere, it was the exact opposite. You’re not smiling in your routine. You get really tense, and everything tends to contract. That’s pretty much what we lived through: You’re expected to be like a robot.”

This month, more than 10,000 packed Pauley Pavilion for a meet against Pac 12 rival Arizona — a vocal, spirited crowd of students, ardent supporters and families with children in tow who filled all but the highest rows. It was “BruINclusion Day,” a celebration of diversity, and the seats were draped with pompoms of all colors of the rainbow.

Ross, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and anchor of the team, brought down the house with the daring amplitude of her flawless vault that earned a perfect 10 from judges. Her teammates raced to the vault to smother her with hugs and high-fives.

As is their custom, the Bruins stayed loose throughout the meet — dancing their way through warmups and between events. Kondos Field was elegant in a black dress and heels, and she interacted with spectators, evening signing a few copies of her book, “Life is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance.”

As host, UCLA closed the meet with the floor exercise. Fittingly, Ohashi was last to compete and positively erupted at the opening strain of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” as the crowd went wild. This was the routine that set the Internet ablaze, which she co-choreographed with Kondos Field via Skype and over winter break, the coach in the kitchen of her Los Angeles home and Ohashi in her upstairs bedroom at her family’s Seattle home.

Every song in the medley was chosen for a statement or mood, and her teammates mimicked each shoulder shimmy and hand clap from the mat’s edge.

She scored another perfect 10 to cap a UCLA victory that was never in doubt and was swarmed by teammates, who hoisted the 4-feet-10 Ohashi on their shoulders. Then she bounced down and ran the length of the arena and back to smack every outstretched hand.

For Kondos Field, who announced last September that she’ll retire at season’s end, only a handful of meets and the NCAA championships remain.

And what she wants for her final team is what she has wanted for them all.

“I want them to love the process of becoming a better gymnast every day — 1 percent better — and to figure out for themselves that negativity doesn’t work. That it’s okay to be positive and to think positively. And okay to be positive and to think positively. I want them to take this beautiful, hard sport and become resilient, courageous, compassionate, strong women. And then take everything they have learned from it into the world and make the world a better place.”

The Bruins athletes have a wish, too. It’s that young gymnasts and their parents know the dark narrative of abuse in the aftermath of the Nassar scandal does not define gymnastics.

“It’s not the sport that’s bad,” Ohashi said. “It was the culture. It was the people that were allowed into it. Stuff happened in every sport. Every sport can become abusive. It just so happens this was a mass thing that almost defined the sport. But it’s not an abusive sport, it’s a beautiful sport. And there’s not one way that gymnastics can work.”

Read more coverage:

Archives: At Nassar sentencing hearing, a parade of horror and catharsis

Sally Jenkins: Nassar was just a symptom. Congress must cure a sick Olympic culture

Report: USOC, USA Gymnastics knew but did not protect athletes from Nassar

U.S. Olympic Committee chief works to evaluate gymnastics after Nassar

USA Gymnastics hires NBA executive as new CEO

On Parenting: Here’s how to know if your child’s gym uses abusive tactics