Conference of Champions

529 NCAA titles
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Valorie Kondos Field Op-ed: 'The Art of Building Champions'

Editor's note: The following is an op-ed written by former UCLA women's gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field which appeared in the June 24-30 issue of Sports Business Journal.

College athletics, contrary to what some might believe, is not a religion. 

College athletics is a means to build champions. Not just champions in sport, but more importantly, in life through sport.  No doubt you’ve heard that before. But I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard it from someone who discovered this the way I did.

I recently retired after being the head gymnastics coach for UCLA for the past 29 years. But I didn’t start out in gymnastics, or even athletics. I started out in ballet. I’d never tumbled, flipped or played organized sports. I came to gymnastics when, thanks to my training in dance, I became a student coach and choreographer to UCLA’s gymnastics team in 1983.

I quickly realized that the discipline, determination, perseverance and sacrifice that are necessary to succeed in gymnastics were the same qualities I had found in ballet – and the qualities that make for champions in any walk of life. Coming to athletics from outside the world of sports, and building a successful career coaching a sport I had never played, gave me a unique perspective on what is really important in succeeding in collegiate athletics and in life.

The Pac-12 Conference understands the importance of those transcendent qualities. It has always taken great pride in championing all sports, all athletes. From Arizona and Arizona State, out to Colorado and Utah, up to Washington and Washington State and down through Oregon, Oregon State, California, Stanford, USC and UCLA – all 12 of our leading universities don’t just focus their attention on football and basketball. We celebrate all student-athletes and their coaches as vital components of our respective universities, athletic departments and society. 

There’s a difference in developing great athletes and developing champions. Great athletes only focus on the win. Champions dare to dream of more than just winning. They strive to achieve a level of excellence that has never before been achieved, by themselves or anyone else, in the classroom and on the field. We enjoy being around them because they embrace all that life hands them through a positive lens. Champions clearly see the unimagined, and in pursuit of that vision they consciously choose to fortify every choice they make. They find the joy in the struggle and embrace the suck. They choose to sweat the small stuff with determination and enthusiasm, with absolutely no guarantee of a result, except to be able to say, “I have no regrets.” 

The heart of a champion isn’t validated by winning a race, competition or game. While losing sucks, often for quite some time afterwards, the heart of a champion thrives in the process  – the process of excellence, including taking responsibility for everything within their control. Through this process, they not only elevate their own game but also everyone’s game around them. 

Athletics is one of the greatest venues for training champions and developing superheroes. Sport is a master class of tough and important life lessons. Perseverance, resilience, courage and teamwork are all part of the curriculum of being an athlete whether it’s on the field, in the gym or on the court. Athletics teaches a mindset, a vision and a dream that gets the best out of a person. And when that mindset is honed, a person can be a champion at anything. 

It’s no coincidence that the collegiate conference with the most national championships also has so many of the highest-ranked academic institutions in the world. Steel sharpens steel. The challenges in the classroom match those in the gym. Champions and superheroes aren’t one-dimensional. They take pride in becoming their best in all aspects of their lives. That fuels the competitive energy and that is the heartbeat of the Pac-12.

It only takes a slight glance at the championship walls throughout the Pac-12 to realize that every sport is proudly represented. We’ve hoisted 526 NCAA Championships, over 200 more than the next closest conference. Of those 526 banners, 191 have been earned by women’s sports. This is a powerful statement about the importance given to our student-athletes and programs. For our student-athletes, to be a part of a collaborative conference that celebrates and honors all of their athletic brothers and sisters, as well as their individual and team academic successes, is a true breeding ground for champions in life - many of whom will continue through the process when they leave campus and transform into superheroes. 

Valorie Kondos Field was head coach of UCLA Bruins gymnastics from 1991-2019, during which time her teams won seven NCAA Championships and 15 Conference Championships.