Chris Waller took over UCLA’s celebrated gymnastics program in 2019 at the height of the team’s popularity. One year after Katelyn Ohashi’s viral routine, the longtime assistant inherited one of the program’s most accomplished senior classes and looked poised to continue the program’s legacy.
It hasn’t all gone according to plan.
On top of a pandemic that’s affected all three of his seasons in charge, Waller is now at the center of a controversy that’s engulfed the popular gymnastics program after a teammate was accused of using racist language and the reaction from coaches angered many gymnasts who remained on the team.
Here is what to know about Waller.
From understudy to leading role
Before taking over as head coach following the 2019 season, Waller spent 17 years as a top assistant to former coach Valorie Kondos Field. He helped UCLA to four NCAA championships, including the program’s 2018 crown won in dramatic fashion over No. 1 Oklahoma. The Bruins were in fourth place halfway through the national championship meet when Waller unleashed a fiery locker room speech that helped ignite the UCLA comeback, which ended with a perfect 10 on beam from senior Peng-Peng Lee to clinch the title.
Waller’s motivational speeches were just one of the major differences between the new head coach and his legendary predecessor. In 2020, Kondos Field described him as the “yin to her yang.” While she was focused on tailoring the team’s culture and public image, Waller, a former Olympian, handled the team’s training routines and conditioning regimen and was a key recruiter. She said she never cared about winning. Waller admitted he loved it.
His competitive yet compassionate nature motivated his athletes, including Norah Flatley, who cited Waller’s passion for gymnastics as a reason she stayed on the team when she felt her own love for the sport waning early in her college career.
“If anything, if I don’t want to win for myself, I want to win for Chris,” Flatley said in a 2020 video produced by UCLA. “And I want to do this for Chris because I know how bad he wants it.”
Flatley was one of the gymnasts who sent public tweets to athletic director Martin Jarmond for help during the recent conflict.
With championship expectations in 2019, Waller’s first year at the helm ended suddenly when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the team’s highly anticipated senior meet and postseason. But not getting to celebrate influential seniors such as Olympians Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian and six-time All-American Felicia Hano is shaping up to be the least of UCLA’s concerns of the last three seasons.
UCLA competed last year without half of its top-ranked freshman class because many elite prospects deferred their college careers for the postponed Olympics. The short-handed team missed the NCAA championships for the first time since 2006, but still showed flashes of the team’s signature joy through viral floor routines from Nia Dennis and Margzetta Frazier.
Beam has especially been problematic for the Bruins during Waller’s tenure. UCLA’s season average on the event, which Kondos Field coached and is now overseen by associate head coach Kristina Comforte, dropped from 49.436 in 2019 to 49.05 in Waller’s first year. Beam was even more treacherous last year when the Bruins averaged 48.982, the team’s lowest score on the event since 2011.
Successful competitive career
Before a two-decade coaching career in Westwood, Waller was a national championship-winning athlete. The four-time All-American helped UCLA to an NCAA title in 1987 and won individual NCAA titles on pommel horse in 1989 and the high bar in 1990.
Waller parlayed his collegiate success into a USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame career with national team success. He was named to the U.S. national team from 1989 to 1997 and won U.S. titles in the all-around in 1991 and on pommel horse from 1991 to 1993. He competed in the 1992 Olympics, where he advanced to the all-around final and finished fifth on pommel horse.