“What I love about coaching is helping people overcome personal barriers, then having a meeting and saying, ‘Remember that? You can do anything.’”
UCLA gymnastics head coach
The first thing you learn when you sit down in the office of Chris Waller ’91, UCLA’s new gymnastics head coach, is that he’d rather be elsewhere.
It’s nothing personal. In fact, the Bruin All-American and Olympic gymnast enthusiastically engages in the topics at hand, including the challenge of taking the reins of what is arguably the nation’s highest-profile college gymnastics program, replacing a coaching legend so iconic that she’s best known by her nickname, Miss Val.
But for the last several weeks, Waller has spent more time than he’s used to at his desk, tending to administrative matters. And outside of the gym, he gets antsy. “I love working with our student athletes and coaching staff,” he says. “Yesterday I finally got to coach. I was so excited.”
Waller was an assistant to Valorie Kondos Field (“Miss Val”) for the last 17 seasons, during which the Bruins captured four NCAA championships. Known as much for his energy as his strategic and technical savvy, Waller stands in sharp contrast to Kondos Field, a former ballet dancer who entered coaching with no previous gymnastics background and adopted an unconventional style, focusing on developing people rather than athletes.
The approach garnered Miss Val seven national championships during her 29 years at the helm, more than all but two NCAA women’s gymnastics coaches. But she’d be the first to admit that her competitive drive is no match for Waller’s signature ferocity. “Chris is really good at going to battle,” Kondos Field says. “He loves those epic moments of rallying the troops.”
One such moment is widely credited with precipitating what might be considered the most unlikely of UCLA’s 118 NCAA titles.
On April 21, 2018, at the halfway point of the final day of the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships in St. Louis — the so-called Super Six — UCLA was perched in the bottom half of the standings. As the Bruin gymnasts struggled to refocus in the locker room before their final two rotations, Waller returned to the floor and experienced an epiphany. Although no one was giving UCLA a chance, none of the other schools were running away with the competition. “Suddenly I had this crazy adrenaline rush,” Waller says. “Looking at the scoreboard, what would normally take five minutes took a tenth of a second to figure out — if we go 49.7 [of a possible 50] on the next two events, it’s impossible for anyone to beat us.”
That would require some career-best performances, but it was doable. Waller smiles at the memory. “Whether or not it was true [that the team could win], I sure as hell believed it.” He stormed back to the locker room, gathered the gymnasts and told them to listen up. “You’ve trained like champions for 365 days — we’re going to finish this thing like champions!” he yelled. “It’s not over! Bruins don’t quit!” He said it all loudly, mixing in a few choice expletives. “People were a little scared,” recalls current senior gymnast Felicia Hano, laughing. “We had never seen him that emotional. But it showed that he believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves.”
What followed was a performance for the ages. The Bruins registered a 49.6375 on the uneven bars, the second-highest total for that event in Super Six history, then a championship-record 49.75 on the balance beam, capped by a perfect 10 from senior Christine Peng-Peng Lee ’18 on the final routine of the competition — just enough to squeak past two-time defending champion Oklahoma.
A Program Apart
Nationally, women’s gymnastics continues to reel from the devastating case of USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse, in which hundreds of survivors came forward — current and former UCLA gymnasts among them. Stories also emerged of verbal and emotional mistreatment by former national team coordinators and coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, as well as other elite coaches.
Against that backdrop, UCLA gymnastics presents a stark rebuttal with a program built on exuberance as much as excellence. On the heels of the 2018 national championship, the team averaged more than 10,000 fans for meets at Pauley Pavilion in 2019, including a record 12,907 for Senior Night and Kondos Field’s last meet. Though the team fell just short of a repeat title, the season included 21 routines that judges deemed flawless, more than twice the number of any other team. Outside the arena, people rendered their own verdicts. Bruin Katelyn Ohashi ’19 had a joyous floor routine, set to pop hits, that amassed tens of millions of online views and earned her the ESPY awards for Best Play and Best Viral Sports Moment.
Ohashi, who graduated in June, has said she was “miserable” when it came to gymnastics before arriving at UCLA, where she found a culture vastly different from what she had experienced. Over nearly three decades, Kondos Field built a program in which talented gymnasts are urged to enjoy and express themselves, in contrast to the sport’s hard-driving, rigid reputation. Character and personal growth matter more than judges’ scores.
“The coaches supported our goals and passions outside gymnastics and wanted us to be prepared to pursue the next phase of our lives,” says Kristina Comforte ’10, a former U.S. National Team member and UCLA All-American who performed for the Bruins in 2006–08. Waller brought her on as associate head coach for the 2020 season. “Having their support and guidance, even after graduation, means everything when you’re facing an identity crisis, knowing that the structure you’ve had as a gymnast since you were a small child won’t be there anymore,” she says.
JaNay Honest ’18, a former walk-on who became a key contributor to the 2018 national championship team, says the program gave her the confidence that she had lacked. “Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t think what I said mattered,” Honest recalls. “Chris and Miss Val helped me find my voice as a leader.”
Like Kondos Field, Waller derives much of his job satisfaction from developing athletes outside the gym. He points to Honest as one of his biggest successes. “JaNay was told repeatedly [that] she would never be able to compete for UCLA,” Waller says. “I saw this kid who had physical talent and a lot of shortcomings, but man, was she willing to work, and man, was she coachable.”
Honest’s improvement was dramatic, culminating in a scholarship for her senior year and a 9.9 on the uneven bars as part of the memorable Super Six comeback. But for Waller, the fun part was convincing Honest of the universality of her experience. “There’s an opportunity missed when we don’t connect the dots and show how achieving success in athletics applies to everything else in life,” Waller explains. “What I love about coaching is helping people overcome personal barriers, then having a meeting and saying, ‘Remember that? You can do anything.’”
Waller’s love of gymnastics began as a 7-year-old sitting in front of the television in his Evanston, Illinois, home and watching the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, where Romania’s Nadia Comaneci became the first Olympic gymnast to earn perfect scores. Three years later, inspired by U.S. gymnast Kurt Thomas winning gold at the world championships, Waller decided to give it a try. He and a friend spent two years at the local YMCA, teaching themselves with the aid of an instructional book. Waller went on to become one of the nation’s best gymnasts. Among his many achievements, he won the U.S. all-around crown in 1991 and was an all-around and pommel horse finalist at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. At UCLA, Waller helped the Bruin men capture the NCAA title in 1987.
As an assistant to Kondos Field, Waller served as the ideal complement. He was direct, energetic and fiercely competitive, whereas she was more relaxed and observant; he was a student of the sport’s technical side, while she focused on the choreography. “Chris always had a clear vision for our team, along with a plan for how to execute it,” says Samantha Peszek ’15, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist and Bruin gymnast from 2011 to 2015. “He is one of the hardest-working coaches in the NCAA.”
Waller absorbed the lessons of his coaching mentor, but he won’t try to embody her. “I’m more of a loud, motivational coach, so it’s going to look a little different,” he says. “But in terms of the general idea that we invest in the person first and then the athletics, that’s the bedrock of the program, and that will remain.”
A Healthy Handover
Forty-four years ago, another legendary UCLA coach retired. By almost any measure, the man who replaced John Wooden at the helm of the men’s basketball program enjoyed tremendous success, winning 85% of his games. But Gene Bartow resigned after two seasons, later conceding that the pressure of replacing college basketball’s greatest coach was too much.
Kondos Field knows something about the Wooden legacy — she considered him a mentor and friend. And Miss Val, who has known Waller since he arrived on campus as an 18-year-old student-athlete, insists he won’t face the same difficulty. “There are many more successful coaches with Chris Waller’s style of coaching than with my style of coaching,” she says.
Unlike Wooden’s replacement, Waller has shaped the program alongside his predecessor. He also inherits a senior class loaded with talent, including Olympic gold medalists Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian. “All of the seniors know this is going to be the biggest leadership challenge they’ve had, to set the foundation for the new culture of UCLA gymnastics,” Kondos Field says. “They are 100% bought in to support Chris.”
What will it take for Waller to judge his head coaching tenure a success?
“At the end of each season,” he says, “I want everyone involved with our team to feel they were part of a special year that won’t ever be replicated — that they will look back and know we did something amazing together, however it went.”
He pauses, then grins. To be true to himself — to metaphorically stick the landing — the fiery competitor who willed his team to the top in 2018 knows he has to say more. “Beyond that, I want to win three national championships and a lot of Pac-12 championships.”