When the heading coaching position at the University of Georgia became available, KJ Kindler’s named buzzed around the gymnastics world as the ideal choice to fill the role. While Kindler turned the position down, the episode has certainly served to put the University of Oklahoma and its women’s gymnastics coach in the NCAA spotlight.
Since taking over the program in 2006, KJ Kindler has led the Sooners to two Super Six appearances and the position of perennially vying for the National Title. I recently spoke with KJ Kindler about her program, the Sooners’ up and down 2012 season and the future of the program and its coach who loves to dance.
AJ: Your name was at the tip of everyone’s tongues when it was announced that the University of Georgia was looking for a new head coach. You’ve decided to stay at the University of Oklahoma. When were you approached and what went into your decision? It has to have been a flattering experience.
KJ: It is extremely flattering. Yes, I was approached. I was not approached until the week of JO [Junior Olympic] Nationals and was honestly not expecting the events of the past few weeks to occur at all. I was very surprised. Ultimately, the decision came down to the fact that our Athletic Director, Joe Castiglione, has invested a lot into our program. We obviously would love to have the program that they [the University of Georgia] have in Athens, but we want to do it here. How did I know this would be the first question?!
AJ: This season saw your team at the top of the rankings, yet the team ultimately missed the Super Six? How do you feel about the year as a whole?
KJ: How do I feel about seventh place? Obviously, this season had a number of challenges from the get-go, with a lot of challenges that I’m not sure many people were aware of. The situations were very unique, as we lost a lot of athletes both temporarily and permanently for the season.
I’ve always put a particular emphasis on having everyone prepared to compete. I will never put five athletes out on the floor. My job is to have six athletes ready to compete no matter what. When we lost gymnasts unexpectedly, we were ready. The gymnasts who competed were not necessarily putting up 9.900 scores, they may have been 9.850s or 9.750s, but they were prepared and confident.
Are we elated? No way. I do have satisfaction in the fact that our athletes work so hard that we competed with a lot of athletes who don’t always get the opportunity to compete and those athletes wound up hitting. There are gymnasts who competed for us at Nationals who were ninth in the lineup at the beginning of the year. I’m very proud of those athletes and excited for them. At the end of the day, we hit 24 for 24 routines at Nationals and you can’t ask for much more than that.
AJ: Having mentioned that you like to have all of your athletes prepared to compete, do you make a conscious decision to de-emphasize the all around? Two years ago, Hollie Vise was in a position to win the all around at the NCAA Championships and wound up vaulting the second night, but not the first. You have not had an all around star or regular four-event gymnast. Is that by design?
KJ: I have a reputation for not using all arounders, but I don’t think it is a strategy. Back in 2010, Hollie did have the opportunity to win the all around. Hollie had worked so hard on vault. She is a great example of someone who was deflated and rejuvenated. On that night, the decision we went with was what got us to that point. We were going back and forth with the lineup as one of our stronger vaulters had appendicitis and we didn’t know what she’d be able to do. Ultimately, we don’t do gymnastics for individual results. It was more important for OU [the University of Oklahoma] to make the Super Six than it was for Hollie Vise to win the all around and she was on board with that decision.
Megan Ferguson trained vault until the last workout of her collegiate career. She was training a full on, back pike off. The fact that Megan only competed three events was not due to a lack of effort.
Kayla Nowak vaulted for us once this year and twice last season. Obviously she wound up breaking her hand at the end of this year, but she is someone who was phenomenal on vault her junior year in high school. Her senior year, she wasn’t as strong on vault for whatever reason, but she continues to train vault and is very good under the gun. She vaulted for us against Alabama and did very well. I’d say that Kayla is hot and cold in practice on vault, which is why she hasn’t been in the all around.
AJ: Your team is known for being very consistent. Does the team do many intrasquads during the season?
KJ: The number of intrasquads we do depends on the event. We do more intrasquads on bars than any other event. We tend to do a lot of different workouts and activities on beam, whether they are partner workouts or triple workouts where three gymnasts go one after another. Time is certainly of the essence, as we only have a set number of twenty hours to play with.
AJ: The Oklahoma team is known for being extremely fit and conditioned. What do you do specifically to achieve that? Many teams talk about conditioning, but your team is known for it.
KJ: The number one thing we focus on is nutrition. We educate the gymnasts as much as possible about nutrition. We bring in nutritionists who educate the girls and do private counseling with them. We send them a lot of information about the best food that will allow them to recover quickly, the best fruits and vegetables for recovery, and the gymnasts respond very well to learning about it.
The second most important thing we focus on is strength and fitness. I am someone who finds tone, muscle and that ‘fit look’ to be beautiful. I’m not someone who finds being thin and waifish to be beautiful.
Our team does a lot of swimming during the preseason. They swim several times a week during the preseason, do circuit training and conditioning four times a week during the preseason. We emphasize conditioning as our number one goal during the preseason and preach that your body is your temple. We stress that because you need to be strong and fit in order to do gymnastics.
AJ: Was conditioning something that your own coaches stressed? I know that you came from coaches who stressed compulsories and had girls at JO Nationals who could be extremely impressive, even if they only did back fulls on floor because everything was done on toe.. Were you a strong compulsory gymnast? I’ve heard that you were weak on bars.
KJ: I disagree that I was weak on bars! I had a geinger that was beautiful! I was actually a good bar worker in JO because the bars were still close together and I was doing belly beats. Being taller, bars became very difficult for me once they moved the bars apart and I had to do giant swings.
Conditioning is something that I learned along the way as a coach. I went straight into coaching after college. I learned a great deal from all of my coaches. My first coach, Mary Jane Olson, was the head coach of a division three gymnastics team at Hamline University in Minnesota. I really learned to love gymnastics from her and was a gym rat. I worked out after the collegiate team from the time I was four years old, so college gymnastics was always something that I aspired to do. I really learned technique from Laurie and Frank DeFrancesco at Arena Gymnastics and learned how to look beautiful. I would say that I was a gutsy gymnast who would try anything. I was strong on beam and floor because I loved to dance and love beam. I was hideously terrible at vault because I was tall. I competed a full on, one and half off. I had to work around being tall.
I would not say that I learned conditioning from my background necessarily. I learned a lot about it from things I’ve read. I was somewhat terrible at compulsories and was much stronger at optionals. I grew up in the same state as Rhonda [Faehn] and she could’ve wiped the floor with me in compulsories. My bars actually got better as I went along in college. I rotated with Alabama at Regionals as the top individual qualifier. Back then, the top seeded individual qualifier rotated with the top seeded team at Regionals. Dana Dobransky [Duckworth] was actually on the team the year I rotated with them.
AJ: The gymnasts from WOGA have always been sought after by NCAA coaches, yet the gymnasts aren’t known for having successful careers in college. You have had a great deal of success with the gymnasts from WOGA. What is the secret? Are you a lot like the fierce Russian women who coach them on beam?
KJ: Honestly, I think a lot of it is motivational. I constantly work a lot of basics and complexes on beam. I feel that if you lose that source, the basics that made you consistent on beam, you lose your confidence. I really stress being one with the beam. It may sound silly, but I fully believe that you need to spend a lot of time on beam to build that confidence and feeling. We always tell the gymnasts that they are the best team on beam and they come to believe it.
Taylor Spears came to Oklahoma after scoring a 7.600 on beam her senior year at JO Nationals. I knew that she was going to need a lot of confidence to overcome that routine. You constantly have to think about and wonder what made that happen. I knew that her performance on beam at that meet had nothing to do with ability. The gymnasts from WOGA have so many wonderful assets: they have tremendous flexibility, technique and attention to detail.
I’m definitely someone who they learn to know what to expect from. I have high expectations and they strive to meet them. Maybe I am similar to coaches in that I do have those expectations and pay attention to detail like they do. They really train them to be beautiful at WOGA.
AJ: You actually had a gymnast from WOGA transfer onto your team this year.
KJ: Lara Albright decided that she wanted to transfer and contacted us after making that decision. I relied heavily on Taylor Spears’ recommendation, as they are very close, as well as the recommendation of Laurie Dix from Frisco. Lara has really learned a lot of beam this year and I expect her to be in the lineup next season. She did very well on floor this year and I really liked her routine. I didn’t know that she had so much style and the ability to express music when I made her routine.
AJ: What do you particularly look for in recruits? So many coaches have politically correct BS answers, but you have had a lot of success with unheralded Level 10 gymnasts who aren’t big stars.
KJ: I look for kids with potential to improve. Megan Ferguson is a perfect example. Before college, she did a healy twirl,+healy twirl,+straddle back and a double pike on bars, but you could tell that she was swingful if that is a word. I am definitely looking for someone who can improve. I know you said I am not known for all arounders, but I do look for gymnasts who want to do all four events. If someone is willing to give up easily on an event, that doesn’t impress me. I want that persistent gymnast who will continue to train and improve on every event.
AJ: You’ve been known as a team that is stronger on bars and beam. Do you actively seek the more skill-oriented gymnasts?
KJ: We absolutely look for the skill gymnasts, but we aren’t silly about it because you need power for floor and vault. I’m definitely drawn to the artistry and am one hundred percent behind the artistic aspect of the sport. I always want our gymnasts to look pretty, extended and beautiful. It is difficult to stand out in collegiate gymnastics because everything comes down to tenths. The judges have three tenths to play with for artistry and I wish they would use it a lot more because I believe it could certainly help us out.
AJ: How do you choose the music for your floor routines? Hollie Vise used Apologize two years after both Corey Hartung and Tabitha Yim used the music. It had been played out on the radio. Do you choose the music or do the gymnasts?
KJ: I picked Apologize for Kristin Smith who didn’t like the music. Hollie told me that she loved the music and it was totally her style. It wound up working extremely well. Kristin wound up going in a different direction. Sometimes the gymnasts bring me the music, something I give it to them. It is definitely a collaborative effort.
AJ: You’re known for giving your gymnasts very unique choreography. There is a lot of squatting going on in the choreography and other moves down on the floor that one doesn’t see elsewhere. What is your dance background like?
KJ: I love to dance, but I have zero formal dance training. I might have taken a few jazz classes when I was very young, but I really rely on the music and being in the moment. If I’m not feeling it, I send the girls home. I love to dance and whatever I feel is what I do.
AJ: Did you choreograph your own routines?
KJ: I did do the choreography for my own routines, which started when I was in high school. I did routines for the other girls as well.
AJ: What were your own routines like?
KJ: I LOVED Prince, so I did a Prince routine my sophomore year and did a routine to She Blinded Me With Science my senior year. My routines were definitely more alternative.
AJ: Are there any floor routines done by others that you particularly love?
KJ: I have great admiration for Val [Kondos Field]’s work. I always loved Stella Umeh’s presence. I don’t even remember her choreography that music, but I found her presence to be very captivating.
AJ: Which gymnasts inspired you growing up?
KJ: I was thirteen when Mary Lou Retton won the Olympics, so I was very inspired by Mary Lou [Retton], Tracey [Talavera], Julianne [McNamera], and I really loved Amy Koopman. There were definitely a lot of Division 3 gymnasts who inspired me. Lori Tischler did the floor routines at Hamline University and I grew up with all of that in my blood.
AJ: Looking ahead to next year, what are your expectations?
KJ: We knew going into this past year that we were weak on vault. Even before the injuries, we knew that we were going to have to compete at our best on vault because we just didn’t have the power of the other schools. On beam and floor, we felt that we were in the hunt. We felt that we were in the hunt on bars as well, but we didn’t have the same depth.
When we recruited, we addressed our weakness on vault and I believe we’ve addressed it extremely well for next year. Haley Scaman is going to help us out tremendously on vault. Keeley Kmieciak scored a 9.900 on vault at JO Nationals. Maile’anna Kanewa is a good vaulter and Hunter Price, who is walking on the team, was the Level 9 National Champion on vault. I definitely expect all four of the girls to be in the lineup for us.
We are losing two girls on beam, Megan [Ferguson] and Sara [Stone], but Sara only competed one year on beam for us. We have a lot of alternates who we expect to compete and a couple in the incoming group of freshmen who can do beam. Beam is extremely important for our team because it comes down to that confidence. We are losing two routines on floor and one on bars. We had two seniors compete on bars at Nationals, but it was the only time Sara Stone competed bars for us in her entire career.
AJ: What will it take for Oklahoma to win an NCAA Championship?
KJ: We need great team chemistry and that needs to start outside of the gym. We need to stand out and be unique and different. The next step for us is to have supremely confident teams. We have a great staff, a great support staff and we just need the whole package.
AJ: Oklahoma was second at NCAAs your fourth year as head coach. That was very close…
KJ: It was close. Those four seniors only competed three routines at Nationals their freshmen year, so they came a long way. They were slacking when they came in.
AJ: You took over Oklahoma at a time when the team was in turmoil. The team members ousted their coach for violating a number of NCAA rules. Hollie Vise, a World Champion, was coming in expecting to only compete one event. What was that meeting like?
KJ: We definitely had a meeting about expectations. Once the girls found out I was coming in, I believe Hollie knew that she was in trouble. Hollie and I had a meeting where I asked her what her expectations were. She told me that her expectation was to get in shape to do beam. I told her that we had a problem because I expected her to do all four events. At that time, she was in no place to deal with anyone expecting that because she was learning how to do a Kip again on bars.
AJ: Did you have doubts?
KJ: I did have real doubts. Those four freshman did three routines. Hollie Vise only made the beam lineup at the end of the season and did so doing a routine that was far below her level of what she is capable of. That is really the nicest way of putting that.
AJ: There are a lot of freshmen elites who underperform. Was Hollie Vise honest about her ability that first year?
KJ: She had no business but to be honest. She had not trained in the two years since they announced on live television that she wouldn’t be going to the Olympics. Her entire life deflated and it was crushing. She didn’t know what motivation she had and was going through a very hard time. To her credit, she worked hard every year and got better every year. It was amazing how far she came her senior year. She didn’t even tumble until her senior year because we didn’t feel that she was in a place of fitness to do it safely. We wanted to keep her safe and she wasn’t in that place.
AJ: Hollie had a great deal of back problems as an elite. How did that impact her career? You got a lot of power out of her that wasn’t seen before.
KJ: We did a lot of preventative work related to her back and really focused on strengthening her core. She didn’t have one ounce of back pain during her time at Oklahoma.
AJ: What do you think caused her back pain? Was it flexibility or a lack of strength in her core?
KJ: Hollie grew tremendously during her time as an elite and it was likely her body not being able to handle that torc. She did a lot of moves that enhanced her flexibility, which didn’t work as she got older and taller. In terms of power, she got older and had more mass.
AJ: Do you find that swimming helps your gymnasts with conditioning and preventative conditioning due to being low impact?
KJ: Swimming helps a lot. We don’t have them overdo it because we don’t want them to lose that quickness, but we feel that swimming changes it [conditioning] up for them. We like that it is very difficult for them.
AJ: Natasha Kelley retired this year. She really improved as a collegiate gymnast. She is someone who was criticized a great deal for form and execution as an elite gymnast. Did you work a lot on cleaning her up?
KJ: Natasha Kelley is amazing. There is not a day that goes by where I do not try to convince her to come back because she still has a year of eligibility left. Natasha had her ACL repaired and had surgery on her Achilles last fall. She heals incredibly quickly. Two days after her ACL surgery, she was walking around as well as you or I. That is just incredible genetics.
AJ: Natasha Kelley raised a lot of eyebrows when she competed for you without an ACL…
KJ: Natasha competed for us for two years without an ACL. The doctor allowed her to do bars because she had been out for her freshman year and wasn’t having it. She refused to sit out another year. I was not on board and was very nervous until that doctor said that she could safely do just bars and then get surgery to fix her ACL at the end of the year. I was ok as long as she had enough strength in her hamstrings, quads and core to make up for it and be stable. She is amazing. She is stronger in her leg without an ACL than she is in her good leg.
Once we let her do bars, she kept trying to do more and more. Natasha asked us to do floor, but I said absolutely not. She competed three events by the end of the year without any issues.
A lot of the change in Natasha had to do with being able to release her personality, be herself and not worry about having to please everyone or constantly make teams like the elite girls have to do. Natasha had an Olympic dream and fell short, but she was able to relax and have fun with gymnastics for the first time in a long time.
We really focused on playing to her strengths. Her leaps were one area we really focused on. As an elite, she did a lot of split jumps and if Natasha Kelley did a split, I would take at least a tenth off, so we had her do straddle jumps, sheep jumps and wolf jumps.
AJ: Is Natasha aware of the criticism about her leaps?
KJ: She is very aware. There are times where I would ask her to do another sissone and she’d look at me like I was crazy. She does not have a lack of confidence. Natasha Kelley is freakishly talented. She didn’t have to worry about impressing me. Natasha impressed me from day one. She may have only been a 9.800 or 9.850 gymnast on beam her freshman year, but she was wearing a brace. Once we took off the brace, she scored 9.900s and I believe a lot of that had to do with the look of the brace.
AJ: As you and your gymnasts work toward that NCAA title, do you find it to be a disadvantage that Oklahoma isn’t in a conference with a large number of gymnastics teams? The SEC Championship is always said to be a rehearsal for the NCAA Championships by all of the coaches in that conference. Repeatedly.
KJ: I don’t. We go all over the country, north, south, east and west. Because we don’t have a large number of teams in our conference, we are able to travel around the country and are able to get exposure to as many judges and fans as possible. I believe it is a huge advantage to be seen by judges and fans everywhere. Teams from large conferences aren’t able to do that because they have to stay in their region for so many of their meets. Our team is used to traveling, which then isn’t a problem during the post season.
The SEC Championship is held on a podium, which is an advantage, but it isn’t the only opportunity to compete on a podium. Our team did the Bart Conner meet on a podium and it is something we are going to do every year.
AJ: When you talk about building a program, are you focused on drawing more fans to your meets? Do you do dual meets with the men’s team?
KJ: We were ranked 13th this year, with an average of just over 2,000 fans. Increasing attendance is definitely a focus for this year. We do not do dual meets with the men’s team. They actually compete in the smaller arena and we compete at the larger arena. Our attendance has quadrupled in our time at Oklahoma and we now outdraw the men. We’ve added another marketing person and are very focused on bringing more of the students to the meets. I listen to what Greg Marsden does at the University of Utah and try to implement his ideas.
AJ: Gymnastics is a subjective sport. What does Oklahoma need to do to establish itself politically?
KJ: I do think that gymnastics is political. We make it a point to come out from the gate with one of our strongest meets every year. We do not aim to start with a 195.15 and build slowly. We aim for our first meet of the year to be one of our strongest meets in order to build our reputation every year and take advantage of that politically.
AJ: What is KJ Kindler into besides gymnastics?
KJ: I love to dance. I dance all day every day. I don’t take classes. I listen to a lot of music, most of which is alternative. I love Ben Folds Five and Amy Mann. I have two daughters, Maddie and Adelade, who are five and three-years-old, so much of my time is dealt with being a mom. They both do gymnastics at Bart Conner’s Gymnastics Academy and love it.
AJ: Do they trail around your team?
KJ: Absolutely, like you wouldn’t believe.
AJ: Are your daughters any good at gymnastics?
KJ: Maggie has Lou’s physique, so I hope that she is a good vaulter like her father. As for the little one, I don’t think there is much hope for her, but I just want her to do it if she loves it.
AJ: How did you meet your husband if he competed at Nebraska and you were at Iowa State?
KJ: We were both gymnasts in the Big 12 conference, so we knew each other that way. I didn’t really get to know him until we had him work at the Iowa State Gymnastics Camp. It was romance at camp and we’ve been together ever since and have worked together since 1995. You would never even know we were married in the gym. We are very used to working together by this point.
AJ: Your gymnasts train alongside the men’s team. Is there romance at Oklahoma?
KJ: We definitely take advantage of that situation because there are Olympians training across the gym and a team that contends for an NCAA Title every year. There was a feeling of a lack of respect for the women’s team when we arrived, but that isn’t the case anymore. The teams are definitely even by this point. There is definitely some romance among the teams, but we’d have those fun issues even if they weren’t dating gymnasts.