Open letter to Mrs. Valorie Kondos Field,
First of all, I am very aware of the sheer amount of anger this will potentially generate. All I can say is, I appreciate that people had good experiences. I just can’t say the same personally. I wish I could. And that’s on how Miss Val chose to treat me. She’s aware of how I feel. This isn’t my truth, it’s just simply the truth. There were many issues as a gymnast. Eating disorders, injuries, silence, and a broken system running the show. For the sake of keeping this shorter, I will focus on the most important issue: Silence. When I was 11-13, I had a very good coach. I would get done with a routine or a skill and he would ask, “What were you thinking about when you did this skill?” In his gym, this was never a rhetorical question, and he wasn’t angry. In fact, he never got angry, never even raised his voice. He expected us to speak. He expected us to think for ourselves, to build conscious awareness of our gymnastics and to communicate this. To him, this communication was more important than gymnastics. We were never allowed to speak in anger or frustration. We had to calmly assess everything. I’ve coached with him recently, and I’m still amazed at how well spoken even his six year old group was. Back then, after he severely injured his neck, he recommended a gym for me and told me to go after my dreams. He still stayed as my mentor for many years. Fast forward 5 years: I deferred a year before going to college to train for the 2000 Olympics. I signed with UCLA in 1999. That year, I was at Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy with Mary Lee Tracy. There were many aspects of her coaching style that were abusive and I’ve spoken about them publicly before. To put things lightly, Mary Lee and I clashed on several issues. A big one for her was that I spoke out loud, and no matter how politely I said it, the fact that I had the gall to speak at all was seen as disrespectful. I was 18. Mary Lee had no problem letting people know I was “difficult.” Once, a brevet judge came to the gym for a mock meet and she was giving us corrections. She gave me a correction on vault, and I nodded in response and said, “ok”. The brevet judge looked at me and said, “Oh. I see what she meant now with that attitude!” (???)
Before signing to UCLA, my mom and I told Miss Val that I would speak up about things. She dotingly thought this was wonderful. It was the first glimmer of hope I’d had in years. After 1999 Worlds, Miss Val called my mom to warn her that Mary Lee was speaking very poorly of me. After the 1999 World Trials coverage, the abusive situation was almost spilling over onto national tv. Miss Val suggested I might need to go to another gym. I considered it very seriously. However, I knew that leaving would only make her trash talking worse, and she would seek to ruin me, like she already did to others who left her gym. So, for better or worse, I stayed. That following year, I know I made what I did despite my coach. She just did not want me to succeed. We were treated like garbage in Sydney. Once I was done with my “duty” as alternate, I spoke to Kathy Kelly, the Women’s Program Director for USAG at the time. I told her I wouldn’t treat a dog the way they had treated us. It was in one ear and out the other. In short, I was coming into freshman year with a lot of fresh scars. I flew from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles and started classes at UCLA the following day. There was no time to process what happened in Sydney. I was suddenly on the UCLA gymnastics team, back at practice that day. The depression hit at once. A few of my Olympic and national team teammates were there with me, and I remember walking to our first practice, one girl saying with longing, “Four more years until we’re done.” What we had been through, with the camps at the Karoly Ranch, and in Sydney, was the disappointment and nightmare of our lives. Recovering from that gripped us all differently. I remember days sitting on the PT table icing after practice, just feeling miserable, like I had a hole in my chest and a permanent lump in my throat. I wanted to hide under a rock. I hated my body too. Miss Val told me I never had to look that starved ever again. It gave me hope. I knew I had an eating issue from Mary Lee, and I knew I would need to gain some weight. However, when I finally ate normal food, my body seemed to gain double and I matured. I filled out, and it wouldn’t go away. Coming down off of heavy anti-inflammatories, I felt the pain that was masked. My wrist was also completely shot. It was broken a year earlier, and it never healed. I tried to swing bars, but I could barely hold a toothbrush. Pulling my hair back for practice was painful. I tried to hold out, but I knew I needed surgery and I finally made the decision to have it. During a team meeting, our bar coach Randy expressed his disappointment in my decision to have surgery. I told him it was just time. I had held out for as long as I could, but it had been broken for over a year and I was ready to not be in pain anymore. After the surgery, the surgeon told my parents it was “like a bomb had gone off in there”. They had to scrape away all the necrotic tissue and put in a bone graft from my hip bone and a metal screw.
Towards the end of that year, one of my walk-on teammates came to me in tears. She said she was going to have a meeting with Miss Val and she thought she might get kicked off the team. She pleaded with me to help her. I was at a loss as to what I could do to help. She was not making the lineup, but she had such a positive energy in practice, it helped me remember why it was fun again. So I coached her on how to speak during the meeting. I gave her pointers such as, look her in the eye when speaking, take the time to carefully consider her words before speaking, and we went through a list of her good qualities as an asset to the team for her to say. I gave her a hug and wished her well. The following day, she called me to say she was kicked off the team. She thanked me for my help, and also said Miss Val had complimented her on her presence of mind during the meeting, to which my teammate responded, “Oh, Alyssa helped me.” I walked into practice, and a team meeting was called instead. Miss Val started by saying, “I’ve made the decision that it’s in her best interest for this gymnast to not be on the team. What do you all think of my decision? Let’s go around the room.” I thought to myself, this was inappropriate to do. She was the head coach, and this decision had nothing to do with us. I watched in horror as each and every friend and teammate said, “Yeah, she needs this.” or “She should be off the team.” When it got around to me, I took a deep breath and calmly said, “I disagree. I think she has a great attitude and was an asset to the team.” You could hear a pin drop, but the first reaction in that room was Miss Val, “Well that’s just SAD!” spat out with vitriol. The entire room erupted at this. The whole team was yelling over each other to say, “No Alyssa you just don’t understand.” I said, “I understood, and I just disagree.” One teammate spoke up and addressed the room with, “Well I, for one, respect Miss Val and respect her decisions.” I replied, “I respect Miss Val, and I can also disagree.” At this comment, the whole room got quiet again, girls were whispering and it irritated Miss Val to the point she finally said, “What?” A teammate asked, “Can we do that? Can we respect someone and still disagree with them?” Miss Val rolled her eyes and conceded, “Yes.” After that meeting, entitled the Jerry Springer meeting, the theme of “agreeing to disagree” was born. Miss Val told me she would not renew my scholarship until the fall. She said I could come back if I wanted to. A small red flag went up in my mind. Sophomore year, 9/11 happened. I had been living in the NYU dorms that summer while taking classes and working just a few weeks prior. My hometown is Middletown, New Jersey. 9/11 had an impact at home. Middletown ended up having the most fatalities in a town after New York City. Miss Val had a banner made, and when I went home for break, she gave it to me and I went to ground zero and hung the UCLA gymnastics banner up on the perimeter among thousands of others. We dedicated our season to the victims of that tragedy. Later that year, I was active on the UCLA student athlete council, and eventually became chairman. I made first team all American on beam. I saw the season through to the end. It wasn’t the best season, but it was the first time back from surgery and I was competing on beam and floor. It was the only year Miss Val couldn’t justify dangling my scholarship and holding it until the fall to see what happens. From pre-season training of my junior year, the nightmare really began. We were doing exercises in Venice beach. It was 30 different stations and then a sprint to the ocean. It took some time to get used to what exercise belonged to each station. There were coaches at certain stations to spot for different exercises. However, with my wrist, there were positions I avoided post-op. I still made a fist in a handstand. It took me a bit to figure out what exercise they wanted and then find a substitute exercise for those particular stations, on the hard pavement. By the 3rd day, I finally had it down. But on that 3rd and final day of this, Miss Val upped the stakes, and said if the whole team gets under a certain time, we could add an extra “personal day”. Personal days were something where we could take off a day from practice, no questions asked. This was a big deal. We were extra motivated. However, we suddenly had a different coach doing the spotting that day. So when I got to his station, I didn’t have time to explain fully, I just said, “I can’t do this,” and dropped to do a different exercise in its stead.
Years later, a teammate called me to apologize for her part in what came next, but this is why I know how this went down. Miss Val had called her and that sub coach into her office and said, “Beckerman must have cheated.” She then asked them to accuse me of cheating. She called in the seniors, and told them to hold a team meeting with just the gymnasts, to get me to confess. I was completely oblivious as I walked into this meeting with just the teammates and no coaches. We had never held a meeting this way before. We were there for over two hours while the seniors talked about this alleged cheater and how disappointed, disgusted they were in this person. We went around the room, and I explained that I did different exercises because of my wrist, taking me longer to get a handle on the modified route the first few times through, but that seemed to go right past them. The meeting ended with no result. I walked out of there bewildered. Out of paranoia, I asked one of the seniors afterward, that they didn’t mistakenly think it was me. She answered, “Yes, it was you. Go talk to Miss Val about it.” I was floored. We wasted over two hours over someone’s mistake. I marched straight to Miss Val’s office and said this was an unnecessary witch hunt. She didn’t seem to care. No apologies were made with the mistake, and she seemed to be perfectly at ease that I was just put through 2 hours of aggression from the entire team, only to realize it was all aimed at me. The teammate (who Miss Val put up to accuse me) was standing in the room as well. I remember telling her, I hold no animosity towards you. Miss Val then had a kick out of making fun of me for using an SAT word. (Isn’t this college?)
This was just pre-season and Miss Val had already manipulated the team to ostracize me. On the first anniversary of 9/11, CNN was featuring my hometown and I had a hard time ending a phone call with a very upset former classmate from home. I was a minute late to the lineup that day. Miss Val pulled me aside and said, “It was a year ago. Get over it.”
By the time we were competing in Hawaii over New Years, things had really become transparent. I was sitting at a New Year’s Eve dinner with the team and a team from Oregon. Some parents from the Oregon team traveled as well, and they sat with me and asked about my elite gymnastics experience. It was the first time I spoke out loud about it. I told them about Mary Lee’s methods, the eating disorders, the issues in the sport. I spoke about Bela and Martha, and USAG. I even talked about how Miss Val had warned me about Mary Lee. I had seen Miss Val hovering around the periphery as I spoke to these parents. In telling them the story, I felt a surge of gratitude for her, that she had protected me once, and that I was finally able to say this out loud. It was a big moment for me, to speak the truth about what happened, even if it was just to two parents at a New Years dinner. I had butterflies in my stomach just saying it. When we got done talking, I got up and stood next to Miss Val, who had been listening. I gave her a friendly nudge with my elbow and she jerked and shook me off like I was an irritant. She then spoke with complete disapproval, that I had a lot of nerve to stand next to her after the things I said. To be honest, this is one of the only times in my life where I could not recall her specific words after that. I knew there was a face and tone of disgust, I knew it was the exact nightmare reaction you’d never wish to have after finding the courage to speak about abusive coaching. I remember the look of sheer disgust on her face, and after her tirade I remember stumbling off and running outside the venue. I ended up in a dark corridor off a street outside the restaurant sobbing in tears on the phone to my older brother. I couldn’t tell him, even seconds afterward, all that she had said specifically, but the intent to harm was crystal clear. I remember being so confused that I could not completely recall something that had just happened. I learned later that this was normal for trauma victims. I cried into the phone, “Why does this keep happening?! Why do I have to go through this again?!” I vaguely remember fireworks going off in the background. Apparently the count down to the New Year had happened but I didn’t care. At that moment, all the misery of the fall season, all the pieces came together. She wanted me off the team, and she hated me.
A few weeks later I had a meeting with Miss Val, where she made a point to let me know that she was on friendly terms with Mary Lee again. She knew what impact it had to say this to me, and she made a point of it. She also made a point in telling me that gymnastics might not be good for me anymore. In other words, she had decided on her strategy, and it was to make me so miserable that I would voluntarily quit. At an away meet in Arizona, she told me she was taking me out of the floor lineup. My teammate was a far better tumbler than I was, and she had just come back and was ready to compete floor, so this made sense to me. However, Miss Val never let go of an opportunity. She told me the real reason was that I was overweight and I would injure myself. Apparently, this reasoning did not include beam, where I was the anchor. I sat out of the one touch and Miss Val walked over and asked me why I wasn’t warming up. I said that if I’m too fat to tumble, I might also injure myself doing beam. She hesitantly said no, and asked me to compete on beam. I did the angriest beam routine of my life, nailed it and walked away.
Every interaction I had with Miss Val, I was treated with indifference, derision, or hostility. She also influenced teammates to make fun of me. I had teammates “jokingly” talking about who could kick my ass in a fight, goading it, like we were on a playground. It hurt. I cared about my teammates, and Miss Val knew it. Miss Val would call me a “locker room lawyer”, which was said with utter disgust. After I dislocated my kneecap at an away meet in Michigan, I had knee surgery, and she took steps to ensure that I would be pushed out. She would always have a limited budget in who could travel with the team. Those that traveled would “earn it” over others. So, naturally I wasn’t worthy. I paid my way to sit in the stands and watch my team at NCAA’s. On crutches. By the end of the year, she told the team not to talk to me. My own roommates wouldn’t talk to me either. I was depressed and alone. I rehabbed my knee at school. By the end of the year, she told me she would not be renewing my scholarship. She would wait and see how I looked in the fall. At first I was training at Woodward west. But after being warned that Miss Val was checking in on me, not in a good way, I flew home and trained in New Jersey. It was there, isolated from that environment, I was able to truly enjoy gymnastics again. At the end of the summer, a few days before flying back to LA, I got a call from the teammate I was supposed to be getting an apartment with, saying that Miss Val told her she couldn’t room with me. When I flew back for pre-season, I had nowhere to live. Thankfully, my great aunt took me in at the last minute until I could find a single apartment. This all happened while I was “trying out” for the team again. I was doing half routines on bars, I was tumbling and I was vaulting again. I felt good about my training. I should have known that none of it mattered. I walked into my meeting with Miss Val and Chris Waller was there as well. Miss Val said they’ve decided not to renew my scholarship. I said I had demonstrated half routines already and that I was much stronger, etc. She waited until I was done and said, “Well, I guess we’re just… agreeing to disagree,” she said with relish, melodically ending on a high note. I got quiet after that. It was right then, that I realized how long she had held onto that grudge from that meeting. I remember her keenly watching my face for that realization to happen. Chris was new to UCLA as a coach, and was not present for that freshman year meeting, so he had no idea what significance that statement held. As I stayed quiet, various things flitted through my mind. I remembered in the past, hearing how Miss Val would brag about how other girls sobbed and begged when they were kicked off the team. I swore to myself right then that I wouldn’t give her that satisfaction. I remained quiet. Miss Val eventually asked, “Well, do you have anything to say to me? Like F-you or thank you?” I couldn’t believe it. This was how she was ending my entire career. She was also inviting me to curse her out, which was really odd, and I thought maybe she thinks I’ll take the bait. So after some thought, I took a shaking breath and said, “No I’m pretty neutral right now. The f-you side of me would say, talk to my lawyer, and the thank you side of me would say thank you for the three years prior.” Then I walked out and quietly went to pieces in the hallway. It was too late to transfer at this point. It was late September of my senior year. She wouldn’t just let me finish out my senior year with the team. Not even as support. This was my punishment. She ended my career on her terms, with disrespect and an F-you, all for the sake of her own petty vendetta.
Today, I find it quite amazing how she can now blog about the horrors of Martha ostracizing teammates. I have to give her credit here. Miss Val certainly knows which way the wind is blowing. Same thing with 9/11. A very useful PR tool, until it wasn’t. And back when I was first finding my voice, speaking out about abusive coaching on that New Year’s Eve, the code of silencing athletes to protect fellow coaches and USAG was still the rule of the day. From my perspective, the goal of her methods were to shut me up and shut me down. Maybe she thought I’d be so miserable that I’d just go die somewhere quietly. But I’m still here Miss Val, and you can’t erase me. Teaming up again with Mary Lee won’t work anymore either. It only tells me you are still a bully, using provocation as a form of control.
This is an example of the handiwork when adult coaches make psychologically unsound choices on behalf of their own egos. It was never about the athlete. It had zero to do with gymnastics. Neither of these women actually cared about what their self serving agendas would do to me as a human being. The real sad part is, no matter how messed up the situation gets, there’s always that part of the athlete that wants their coach to approve of them. This really messes a gymnast up, because abusive coaching will lead you to believe that your successes or failures directly reflect your worth as a person. I was lucky that I had a small circle of teammates on the fringe that understood, and said out loud, what we went through was abuse. They were my lifeline. They still are. I was lucky to have a supportive family, and supportive coaches from earlier in my career that reminded me they were proud, and that I was not the problem. It has taken me many years, only until recently, to decide to give that notion any credence.