Miss Val was coaching UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi when her perfect 10 floor routine went viral earlier this year. While the Princess Grace International Gymnastics Gala on the weekend is what drew the pair to Monaco, they are using this trip as an opportunity to share a more important message to students: it is time we redefined the meaning of success.
Monaco Life: Welcome to Monaco, why did you decide to make the journey from the US?
Valerie Kondos Field (Miss Val): Thank you, I can’t believe I am here, actually. Monaco is even more beautiful than it is in the pictures. I am here because both Katelyn and I believe in the power of sport and how that can fortify you as a whole human being. I always thought that sport was a masterclass in life lessons, so we are always excited to be part of things that celebrate sport with our youth, like the Princess Grace International Gymnastics Gala. It’s an honour to be part of something that involves so many phenomenal international athletes.
Also, this is a gala that Princess Grace started and I feel an enormous sense of pride and honour that we’re able to represent America for her. I am old enough to have grown up watching her movies, so it’s very special for us.
Katelyn, you shot to fame earlier this year when your gymnastics routine went viral, receiving 150 million views worldwide. What was that experience like?
Katelyn Ohashi: In junior year my routine went viral as well with 80 million views before it was taken down because of copyright, but I wasn’t expecting this at all. So many celebrities began responding to it, and I immediately got flown out to ‘Good Morning America’ (television show). I remember thinking, “Wow this is really happening”. At first it was a bit overwhelming, but I am so grateful for all the opportunities that have come out of it.
You have since retired from gymnastics, but you have a blog called ‘Behind the Madness’ and you do inspirational talks for kids with Miss Val. What is the overriding message you are trying to share with students at the International School of Monaco?
Katelyn: Essentially, it is to redefine the definition of success and what it looks like to everyone. Also, it is important for these teenagers to solidify who they are within themselves and be confident in who they are.
Valerie, you have survived breast cancer and written a book titled ‘Life is short, don’t wait to dance’, in which you say that ‘choices’ play an integral role in life. Can you explain why choices are so important to you?
Miss Val: If you ask Katelyn or any other of my students what’s the one thing that I want to teach them, they will not say “How to win”. Rather, I say that everything you do in life is a choice, and every choice you make can have numerous repercussions and it will dictate the type of life you live.
The important thing to remember is that your choices start with your thoughts, and you can choose your thoughts. Katelyn is a perfect example of this life philosophy because she has had a lot of heartache, a lot of injury, and a lot of body shaming from the people that were closest to her. She could have chosen to go into a dark hole, but she chose to give them the benefit of the doubt and believed they weren’t trying to be hurtful, they were just trying to make her the best that she could be. She has lived her life with compassion and forgiveness and that is the reason why over 150 million people who saw her floor routine will say that it resonates with pure joy. And it is real happiness, because of how she chooses to live her life. Katelyn is a great ambassador for my coaching philosophy.
What is your message about social media?
As we have explained to the different classes we have spoken to in Monaco, the most important message that both Katelyn and I speak about is that it is important to put yourself out on social media and use it for good; to use it for ways to help shape the world with positivity. But every single time you put yourself out there, no matter how great your message is, you are going to get haters. And you just have to understand that hurt people do mean things because they themselves are hurting. So instead of lashing out, feel compassion for them. You don’t have to respond to them, just don’t let it affect you negatively.
Why have you taken it upon yourselves to deliver this message?
When Katelyn went viral, she and I talked about how the universe opened up this platform for her and she could choose to use it for anything. A lot of celebrities use it to talk about fashion and makeup and how to take a filtered selfie. But Katelyn chose to use it as a platform to talk about serious social issues that most, if not all, young people go through. I wish you could have seen the tears that were running down the faces of those children in the classrooms. We hit the nerve of so many young girls, especially with body shaming issues. The reason why I chose to retire at the top of my game was because I wanted to share my message on a bigger platform and talk about the issues that I have seen first-hand in coaching 18 to 22 year-olds for close to 40 years. I am giving a TEDX talk in December about how we have to change our definition of winning and success for our children, because there are more reports of stress, anxiety and suicide than ever before and that is on us parents, coaches and teachers. We can’t blame social media; we have to redefine success for our children.
So how do you redefine success?
Success can no longer be defined by winning, because it produces broken human beings, in all walks of life. I switched my coaching philosophy from focusing on winning, to focusing on developing champions in life for our world through sport. I figured if I could develop champions in life in the gym, then that champion mentality would translate to the floor. And I am so thankful that it did because it has given me a platform to say that we can develop champions at the highest level without compromising the human spirit.
How do you balance that with the challenge of being successful in life?
That is the key – you define your success. It is not defined by what your teacher, coach or parent wants, or what social media says. If you are trying to be healthy physically, success is not looking at a supermodel and saying, “If I get to that I will be successful”. So, the way you start as a parent or coach in developing a champion is you define success, and then you have to constantly examine whether the actions with your child are aligned with your goal, and what their definition of success is. It is a very different concept than what we have grown up with, and it is very different from the world in which I have been coaching in.
Surely it goes against the expectations placed upon you as a coach?
I am not hired to be a mentor, psychologist or best friend. I am hired to win. I just figured that I could win in a different way, and I am glad that I have proven that it is possible.
So, your colleagues don’t think you’re crazy?
They still think I am crazy and they don’t really get it, but as I discussed with Kobe Bryant recently (former professional basketball player), joy isn’t about giving everybody participation medals. Joy is doing the extra work it takes to really fill yourself up with pride, and that brings joy. So, one of the things I try to impart on children is that they need to figure out how to have a lot of fun, while working really hard. Especially with the things they least enjoy.
Valerie Kondos Field and Katelyn Ohashi were presented with achievement awards during the Princess Grace International Gymnastics Gala on Saturday night by Prince Albert II of Monaco and Princess Stephanie.