With Steve Cooper
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A Note from Nan Wooden
A few years back me, Valorie, and five of our close girlfriends took a trip to Vegas. I was in my late 70s and thought it would be fun to visit Australia’s Thunder from Down Under (the male revue show). Without getting too detailed, I can admit it was a memorable night, one in which I found myself up onstage with the lovely accented and very handsome Aussie host. While Valorie denies it, I believe she was behind my appearance onstage.
For people who know Valorie, this story isn’t shocking. She has a way of making those around her feel safe to trust, and inspired to get creative and to be adventurous. Valorie’s journey from professional ballerina to one of the most successful college gymnastics coaches of all time is only possible because of how she makes people feel. They have to trust her. The championships her teams have won have come from her focusing more on her student-athletes’ success in life than anything else.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Olympians from around the world come to her program. These are athletes who have already achieved the highest level of success in their athletic careers, but they gravitate toward Valorie because they know she is going to make them better people.
I felt very close to Valorie from the beginning of our friendship. Our relationship has continued to grow closer with each passing year. She refers to herself as my “curly haired daughter,” which is a welcome addition to my existing three daughters. We also share a special bond, as we are both breast cancer survivors.
When people hear about the antics Valorie and I get up to, they are often surprised at how close she became to my dad, legendary basketball coach John Wooden. He had been retired for decades before the two ever met. The thing is, Valorie and I are very much alike in spirit—which also makes us similar in nature to that of my mother, Nellie.
Daddy was a quiet, buttoned-down gentleman. His full name was John Roberts and so my grandparents called him John Bob. One of my favorite stories is when my mom’s folks said to her while they were dating, “Nellie, we really like John Bob, but we’re really just afraid he’s not going to amount to anything.” Of course, he went on to become the greatest college basketball coach in history.
This is the first point of similarity between Valorie and my dad. People underestimated what they were capable of because they didn’t understand their inner drive for excellence. My dad and Valorie were very different, but they shared the same values. My dad cared deeply for those around him and wanted them to succeed; Valorie is the same way.
Early in his career my mom wanted Daddy to succeed and was the free spirit that I believe helped push him to greatness. She encouraged him to take a public speaking class because he was so shy. He trusted her, took the class, and gained more confidence because of it.
My dad was attracted to my mom’s loving strength and I believe he saw that in Valorie from the moment they connected. In kind, Valorie married Bobby Field, a former UCLA football coach, who has the same quiet, calm demeanor as my dad that provides the balance in their relationship.
In truth, it was Bobby who knew my father before Valorie did. However, just as my mother pushed Daddy to stand up and speak, it was Valorie who pushed Bobby to pick up the phone and invite my dad over for their first dinner together.
A lot of people in this world will have dreams, but there’s a lot of work that goes on in the background to make those dreams come true. Daddy was meticulous in his preparation. Valorie is meticulous in the life lessons she teaches her young student-athletes through gymnastics. Neither of them was successful by accident. My dad was intentional with what he wanted and went after it; Valorie has done the same thing.
Their relationship happened because Valorie did the work. Valorie was the one who asked Bobby to set up the dinner. Valorie was the one who invited Daddy to attend the women’s gymnastics meets. Their relationship wasn’t luck or coincidence, their relationship happened because Valorie made it happen and they bonded because the chemistry was right.
Before Valorie invited him, Daddy had never attended a UCLA women’s gymnastics meet. Once he saw how Valorie treated her athletes he was hooked. My dad cared for his players, but watching the outward affection shown by Valorie and the reciprocation by her girls was a new and exciting experience for him.
My dad won more NCAA basketball championships than any coach in history, but his definition of success doesn’t include the word “winning.” Valorie comes from a background of dance where there’s no such thing as winning, only doing your best to have a successful performance. The two spoke the same coaching language.
Daddy’s impact on this world has reached far beyond his 10 national championships in 12 years. His Pyramid of Success has become a favorite teaching tool of many CEOs. I believe Valorie is in the process of delivering that same influence in her own unique way.
From Ballerina to Coach
“Making a big life change is scary. But what’s even scarier… Regret.”
I was 22 years old when I picked up the phone and made the call. It was a choice that changed my life. It was 1982 and I was a professional ballet dancer preparing for my debut season with the Washington Ballet when I heard UCLA needed a dance coach and choreographer for their gymnastics team. I flew to Los Angeles to meet with the head coach, Jerry Tomlinson, and was offered the job. During the interview I was told they couldn’t offer me a salary, but they could provide a full scholarship to attend UCLA. Attending UCLA had always been my dream. Throughout high school, while I was dancing and taking piano lessons, I dreamed of going to UCLA and being a tall, tan, blond volleyball player. The only part of that equation I could ever achieve was the tan part—thanks to my Greek heritage. When I was offered a full scholarship at UCLA it was the closest I could imagine to being a student-athlete. (I wasn’t on the volleyball team and I hadn’t grown an extra foot or dyed my hair blond, but still, I was ecstatic.) I flew back to DC, packed up my belongings, retired from dancing, and moved to Los Angeles to join the prestigious coaching staff of the UCLA gymnastics team.
Today, I am the UCLA women’s gymnastics head coach. In 1997 I led the program to its first national championship—a feat we’ve achieved a total of seven times. I’ve been honored as the NCAA Coach of the Year four times; in 2010 I was inducted into the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame; and in 2016 I was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Century.
How did all of that happen? I have never done gymnastics! In fact, I have never participated in competitive sports! I have never flipped. I have never launched my body off a vault or performed on that harrowing four-inch balance beam. And yet, I have been the head coach of one of the most successful sports programs in the country for over a quarter century.
When I look back at my history, it’s very clear that choice is where it all begins. Choice is the opportunity to choreograph my life. Most people hear “choreography” and they immediately think dance. I describe choreography as any intentional movement. Think about it… choreography is movement that you are either instructed to do or choose to do on your own. Either way it’s intentional. I’ve come to understand that each choice will have numerous repercussions. It can be as daunting and paralyzing as it is exciting and liberating. Life is about choice, and the choices I make will dictate the life I lead.
In writing this book, I realized that every thing positive in my life has come from something I intentionally chose to do. Intentional choice comes from being able to honor your own voice. I’ve always been able to do this because of the people in my life who encouraged me to have an opinion, have a voice, and to own my actions. It started with my parents, Rosie and Gregory Kondos. As a child, art history books were strewn about my home because my father is an accomplished artist whose work is in the New York National Academy of Design. Visiting museums and attending art show openings were part of our normal life. It wasn’t just the great works I was exposed to, I was also privileged to have the experience of being around extremely expressive people. One of my favorite people who frequented art openings was the Purple Lady, who dressed in head-to-toe purple at every event. I loved it! The art world was where I first became aware of the joy that comes from observing without judging. You can simply observe a work of art in so many different ways without labeling it as “good” or “bad.” The artists I know embrace individuality as a badge of honor. Their uniqueness is at the heart of their craft. Years later, as a coach, perhaps this is partially why it was just second nature for me to nurture the individuality and uniqueness of each of our athletes.
Growing up, it was my mom, in particular, who did not pass judgments and who never put pressure on me or my brother, Steve, to be “the best.” Some of my friends’ parents did pressure them to excel, and I realized, even then, how much more joy I had because my mom just let us be. It was such a liberating feeling not to have to achieve a standard set by my parents. I could just savor life’s experiences.
My mom also taught me that making a mistake was simply a way to learn something. I remember one night at the dinner table we were in the middle of a discussion when I spilled a glass of milk that blanketed the entire table. My mom didn’t even flinch, she just kept on with our conversation while she retrieved a towel to mop up the mess. I laugh now because that was a living example of the proverb Don’t cry over spilled milk. Because of her, I have always understood that learning and growing are what life is all about; consequently I did not grow up with a “fear of failure.” I honestly do not acknowledge failure as something to be ashamed of. I believe it is just another “F-word” some mean-spirited person assigned a meaning to in an effort to make others feel bad. How can something be a failure if you’ve actually learned something from the experience? Failure provides feedback on how you can do something better. I continue to use the valuable life lessons they taught me and share those lessons with our athletes in and out of the gym.
Whenever we lose a championship meet, I always reflect on it and figure out what I can do better or differently the next time around. I discuss it with our staff and we formulate a plan to have better results at the next competition. I love the challenge of figuring out how to do better.
Whenever we win, as we did most recently in 2018, I celebrate with the team for a job well done, but, to be honest, I don’t learn nearly as much. Of course, the winning part is really fun.
Perhaps for many of you, the idea of life being about choice is not new. In fact, it is found in many different spiritual teachings. I first contemplated this philosophy when I heard these words from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach and my greatest mentor: “There is a choice you have to make in everything you do. So keep in mind that in the end, the choice you make, makes you.”
Though he passed away in 2010, Coach Wooden continues to be an inspiration and powerful influence on my life. I think about him often and especially every time I enter our training gym, which is in the John Wooden Center. The very title of this book is in homage to him.
Coach Wooden lived an impeccable life, and yet in his later years, whenever he was asked if he had any regrets he would always say, “My wife, Nellie, loved to dance, and yet I never danced with her because I was shy and did not think I was a good dancer.” Looking back, he realized that he should have made a different choice because it would have made Nellie—and thus, him—happy. No one would have cared if he were a good dancer or not. Anyone watching would have seen a couple who had met in high school and remained very much in love throughout their 52-year marriage. I heard him solemnly mention many times, “My biggest regret is that I didn’t dance with my wife.”
I have learned throughout various stages of my life, as you will read, to embrace the sentiment of the book title: think about and figure out what you want to do and then choose to do it. Live your life with no regrets… and don’t wait, because life is short.
In a way, I also feel as if I had my own dance with Coach Wooden. He moved me to live a life I never would have dreamed of. He gave me permission to embrace my uniqueness and unapologetically share that with others. As you will see, very little about my life choices and me can be called traditional.
So, in keeping with that, neither is this book! What I am about to share is a combination of memoir, motivational messaging (I hope!), insights into the world of gymnastics, advice, and more. It is not my entire story and doesn’t include all the wonderful, amazing individuals I have met along my journey, but, what is here supports my truth about finding your voice and embracing your choice. As you read, I hope you will see that it is possible to be successful even if you don’t (and more likely because you don’t) subscribe to the “normal” way of doing things. Imagine how boring our world would be if we were all the same. The only reason innovation exists in the first place is because someone dared to think outside the norm.
I have found life is much more fun when I stop waiting to see what it hands me and instead take charge without a concern about what’s deemed normal. I invite you to be intentional with your choices and to choreograph your life one choice at a time.
Dancing Through Life
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much.”
—BESSIE ANDERSON STANLEY
When I was young my family would take frequent trips to Greece to visit our relatives. My mother’s father and my father’s mother were both from the same place in Greece, a small underdeveloped village called Amos that is right outside of Kalamata (where those amazing Greek olives are from). These trips had a tremendous impact on me.
Each visit was like traveling back in time. The floors in my grandfather’s home in Amos were not finished; they were dirt. There was a bathtub in the kitchen, but it really wasn’t used for baths as much as it was used for washing dishes and clothes. The toilet was in an outhouse, and you needed to make sure to take “the stick” with you so you could fight off the obnoxious rooster who seemed determined to prevent anyone from entering the structure.
Each morning I would help my grandfather tie the three goats and two sheep to the saddle of Maria the donkey. Then we would walk them all a half mile to the pasture where they’d spend the day doing whatever goats and sheep do all day. We’d go back home and I’d help wash the clothes in the bathtub, make the supper, and play with the neighboring kids.
The first time we went to Amos I was four years old. My dad was teaching art in Piraeus right outside of Athens. I remember I didn’t want to stay in the city. Why would any kid want to stay in a city when she could live in the enchanted fairytale world of a village?! So my parents and brother stayed in Piraeus during the week and I stayed in Amos. I didn’t know any Greek, but that didn’t bother me. I had no problem asking my grandparents and young friends how to say things. I can still vividly remember, for instance, pointing to the rope that we were using to tie the goats to the donkey’s saddle and asking my Papou (grandfather) how to say “rope” in Greek. It’s skoiní.
It was during my second trip to Amos, when I was seven, that I understood something that has stayed with me ever since. My family in Greece didn’t know that they were poor. They had a roof over their heads, they had food, they had purpose in their daily lives, they had friends and family, they broke out in song and dance whenever the spirit moved them, they knew God, they knew love. They wanted for nothing and were happy. They shockingly didn’t know they were poor. Really poor. They didn’t know, didn’t care, and were a heck of a lot happier than a lot of people I knew back in the States. At that moment, I realized I didn’t need loads of money in order for my life to be rich.
I have often thought about my days in Amos. The memories fill me with joy and my experiences there are a wonderful reminder of how abundant life can be when you appreciate what you have and live life to the fullest. I learned very young not to spend time comparing what I don’t have to what somewhat else does have. I learned that it’s all about your own perceptions and also about making what you do have work for you the best that you can. I learned, too, that there are so many different ways to live your life, that there is not one ideal way to be or one prescription for happiness that will work for everyone. We each get to choose that for ourselves.
Not only did I arrive at these thoughts when I was seven, I also had the opportunity to have them guide me through my experiences with dance classes. I started ballet at seven because I had scoliosis. The upper part of my spine was curved, and the doctors thought that ballet would be good for my back. I quickly learned I wasn’t born to be a ballet dancer. My physical form and execution of technical skills did not conform to those of a classical ballerina and the art of ballet. I did not look like other dancers. I did not move with the technical precision of other dancers. But that didn’t stop me, even though I would be told numerous times by different ballet directors, “Your head is too big, your neck is too short, your feet are too small, you have no turnout or flexibility.” Invariably, they would add, “But you can dance.”
I credit this to my Greek heritage and to my mother. The Greeks literally dance through life. Young and old (and very old), they are known for beautiful spontaneous movements whenever the spirit moves them, whether or not there is music. To this day I vividly remember my grandparents in Greece dancing in the kitchen before dinner, at every social function we attended, and almost always after dinner as we sat out on the back porch.
When I was 12, I had my first professional dance gig. It was with the Sacramento Ballet, and I was in the corps de ballet for the Nutcracker. I recall getting paid $200 for the entire season, which probably came out to about $10 a performance. The amount didn’t matter. I remember thinking, “Wow, they think I’m good enough to pay me to dance!”
Dance continued to be my passion and I continued my training. Then, when I was 16 years old I decided to look for a summer job. Ever since I watched Olga Korbut in the 1972 Olympic Games I was fascinated with gymnastics, even though I had never taken a gymnastic class. So I called a local gymnastics club to see if they needed a dance coach for their gymnasts. While speaking with the head coach, Jim Stephenson, I mentioned that I played the piano. Jim told me that they didn’t have money for a dance coach but were in desperate need of a pianist. This was at a time when the rules stated that only one instrument could be used for floor exercise music. The piano was the most commonly used instrument for that purpose, though every once in a while someone did use drums or a guitar instead.
So it was in 1976 that I landed my first non–dance job and my first job having to do with gymnastics. It was at the AgileLites School of Gymnastics. To this day I can’t believe how fortunate I was to be taught the basics of gymnastics by Jim Stephenson. Along with being a great gymnastics coach, Jim was also a brilliant artist and sculptor. He educated me on each of the four events—vault, bars, beam, and floor—from an artist’s perspective rather than strictly from an athletic playbook. He spoke my language when he explained gymnastics as performance art, basically taking everything I knew as a classical ballet dancer and adding the new dimensions (for me) of flipping and twisting.
It didn’t take long before I was a pianist who offered my brash and unsolicited opinions on floor routines—a shock to no one who has ever met me. “Get your head up,” I’d say with conviction. “Point your feet,” or “Straighten your legs!” I’d call out to the gymnasts during their routines.
It was remarkable. Here I was, a teenager who had never done gymnastics, telling other teenagers what to do in their own sport. What was really remarkable was that they accepted my critiques and actually implemented them. I simply said them with enough conviction and chutzpah that people actually listened.
It wasn’t long before I told Jim he should reconsider hiring me as a dance coach. Jim said, “Fine, but I need to know you can dance.” I replied with my own “fine,” laced up my pointe shoes, walked out onto the floor, and proceeded to perform a 5-minute ballet.
Shortly thereafter, I choreographed my first floor routine. It was for the oldest member of the team, Syd Jones, who was 17. She was wonderful—I was not. She was an accomplished gymnast—I had no idea what I was doing. And yet, I had no trepidation or hesitation… I just did my best.
Looking back, the routine was all wrong. Much of what I was asking her to do throughout the routine was extremely difficult and didn’t satisfy the requirements in the gymnastics code of points, which made it totally useless in scoring. And yet, Syd tried everything I asked of her, and the routine eventually turned out nicely, even fulfilling the code of points. Syd had every reason to balk at what I was asking her to do, but she didn’t. That says a lot about her character, confidence, and ability to live life outside her comfort zone.
The following year, I graduated from high school and considered going to college while continuing to dance. My dad sat me down and said, “Honey, your mom and I believe in the importance of higher education, but as an artist I know if you want to dance you need to give it your all. You can always go back to school, but you can’t always dance. So if you still love it, you need to go and pursue your dreams as a dancer.”
That was such an incredible gift! My parents gave me the support to pursue my dream of dancing without any guilt about putting off college. My parents encouraged my choice and made it safe for me to listen to my heart and my voice.
I went off to dance in New York and Washington, DC. In the spring of 1982 I had been taking classes at the Washington Ballet for a few months, when they held their auditions. I decided to sit them out. I was more than accustomed by now to hearing all the negative physical critiques because, let’s face it, my head was still too big and my neck and feet were still too short. As for my turnout and flexibility, objectively, they had improved only slightly.
After the auditions, I was walking down the hall of the ballet studio when the ballet director stopped me and asked me why I hadn’t auditioned. I told him I could simply see that every female dancer who had auditioned was the epitome of the lithe, uber-flexible ballerina with long legs, a beautiful long neck, and a small head. I wasn’t having a pity party, I assured him, but I knew I more closely resembled a stout Greek folk dancer (case in point: in “Peter and the Wolf,” I played the Wolf!). When I finished, the ballet director said, “Ah yes, but you can dance!” And with that, he offered me a position with the company, which I quickly and happily accepted.
However, I actually didn’t get through even one season with the company. Shortly before we were due to start rehearsals, I heard that UCLA needed a dance coach and choreographer for their women’s gymnastics team. I happened to be home and visiting the AgileLites gym when Trina Tinti, a beautiful elite gymnast and future UCLA Bruin, mentioned the UCLA opportunity to me.
While dancing was—and will always be—my deepest passion, UCLA was my dream. I always knew it was one of the top academic and athletic universities in the world, so when I had the opportunity to pursue that ambition I jumped at the chance.
Enter Miss Val
“What’s in a name?”
I joined UCLA in the fall of 1982 as assistant coach and choreographer for the Bruins women’s gymnastics team. After growing up and spending the majority of my life in a ballet studio, I relished and embraced being in the UCLA gym, filled with the haze of chalk dust. They also asked me to coach balance beam. I had no idea what the heck I was doing, so consequently I really didn’t do much except marvel at what the human body could do. The gymnasts flipped and twisted and contorted their bodies with perfection. What shocked me the most was that their skill wasn’t an aberration—the gymnasts did this every… single… day, multiple times per day.
It was a thrill to be involved with the amazing UCLA women’s program, which trained alongside the illustrious men’s gymnastics team. I remember teaching our athletes a ballet class, early on, when Lisa Taylor, one of the gymnasts, asked me in a smart-alecky tone, “Are we supposed to call you Miss Val?” In the dance world you call your teacher “Miss” instead of “Coach.” I thought it was a fine idea. I replied, “Yeah, sure, call me Miss Val.” And, since that day most people in the gymnastics world and others who know me professionally call me Miss Val. I think (I hope!) they do it because it has a nice ring to it. The cool kids shorten it to “Miss V” or “VKF.” I’m fine with any of those; as long as no one calls me “Ma’am.”
From 1982 to 1996 the women’s team trained with the men’s team. In the early 80’s the men’s team included some of the best gymnasts in the world. Peter Vidmar, Tim Daggett, and Mitch Gaylord, three of the “greatest of all time,” would become part of the 1984 men’s gymnastics team—the only gold medal–winning team in US men’s gymnastics history! I got to watch these athletes train every day. In fact, Peter humbly asked me if I would clean up his floor routine and give him more polish and style. And as an added bonus, Mitch and I had a history class together. I felt like the coolest girl on campus because I got to ride on the back of Mitch’s motorcycle every Tuesday and Thursday from class to the gym.
- On Sale
- Oct 2, 2018
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Center Street