This story originally ran in our 2014 Graduation Issue. To purchase a copy of the issue, which includes a list of this year’s Nikkei high school and college graduates, please stop by our office or call us at 213-629-2231.
By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
She was forced to make whole-scale changes to what had been a life-long dream, but UCLA assistant gymnastics coach Kassidy Kozai avoids using the word “redemption.”
“I didn’t take on this job to coach, but more to be a liaison,” she said. “I think I can best contribute as a link between the coach and the girls. I’m a stickler for details, and if they understand that, I think it saves time for when they’re working with the coach.”
Twirling a hair tie in one hand while seated on a balance beam at the gymnastics training facility inside the John Wooden Athletics Center, Kozai was completely at ease discussing her involvement with the UCLA coach staff as well as her career as a competitor – one that was cut painfully short.
Now 22, the senior who received her bachelor’s degree this month in psychology had been involved with gymnastics for the better part of her life.
“I couldn’t sit still as a kid,” she recalled. I was always climbing the monkey bars at school or doing something active. I used to play JAO basketball and some of my older teammates and classmates taught me some gymnastics moves.”
Her parents, Jerry and Kathy, recognized that their daughter had a physique and agility well suited to gymnastics, and enrolled her in a kids’ class. She advanced at lightning speed.
“There came a point where I had to decide between focusing on basketball or gymnastics, and my height wasn’t going to keep up with basketball,” said Kozai, who now stands at five feet “on a good day.”
The decision was made all the easier when her mother began to take her to watch gymnastics meets at UCLA.
“The coach and my mom really hit it off,” she recalled. “Over time, we built a great relationship, and it really made me want to attend UCLA someday.”
The coach, Valerie Kondos Field, is something of a legend at UCLA, a place where the term is not thrown around casually.
“There’s always the Wooden hyperbole around here, but it’s really all about tradition and excellence here, and she’s done a great job,” Kozai said.
Through junior high and high school at Brentwood, Kozai excelled as an all-around gymnast, but soon found her most formidable foe was her own body. Gymnastics is a sport that exacts a punishing slew of forces on a human body, and the young girl began to suffer the consequences of her rigorous training. The most serious injury came when she was only 13 years old.
“Yeah, I fractured my back,” she said somewhat casually. “They fused a couple of vertebrae, so coming back from that was a huge battle.
“I had to take off about a year, and this sport, a year off is a career-ending situation.” Her tone had become noticeably more serious.
“I was ready to quit. I was really depressed, but I decided coming back was my only option.”
She did come back. Way back. All the way to the Junior Olympic Nationals, where she placed second on the balance beam.
The injuries came back as well, however. In 10th grade, she underwent surgery to repair torn ligaments in her right knee. That meant another year of recovery, but it was also at the time that she was attracting the attention of college athletics recruiters.
“We rushed the recovery, and maybe it helped with the recruiting, but a lot of scar built up in the knee,” Kozai explained.
More surgery followed to remove the buildup.
There was a broken toe and a torn bicep. Still, Kozai pushed on. Her eyes were on the goal she’d had since she first began her 14 years of training at the All Olympia Gymnastics Center in Culver City: compete as a UCLA Bruin.
She wasn’t signed to an athletics scholarship, but that was merely a formailty in her mind. Kozai made the team as a walk-on in the fall of 2010, specializing in bars and the balance beam.
The dream, however, never reached its apex. Shortly after joining the Bruins, a loose joint in her left shoulder was discovered. It seemed every little bit of progress was immediately followed by crushing setback. More down time and recovery followed, and after two years, Kozai made the decision she had fended off for so long.
“My main concern was my family, how they would react,” she said, her eyes sweeping the gym floor. “My parents and grandparents had come to all my meets – every meet.
“Telling them was the hardest. I was always ‘the gymnast’ in my family and in my neighborhood. Everywhere we went, my parents would introduce with ‘This is my daughter the gymnast.’
“I didn’t know who I’d be without gymnastics,” she said.
Kathy Kozai told the UCLA Daily Bruin that her daughter needed to make the difficult decision on her own terms.
“If we told her she had to give it up, I think it would have been more damaging than if she thought of this on her own,” she explained.
The young gymnast had her own Olympic aspirations, before the severe back injury and ensuing surgery, but she was forced to come to grips with the sober reality that a very fortunate few ever come within sniffing distance of that dream.
“I was really ready to go the elite route, toward the Olympics,” Kozai said. “It was a tough choice [to leave competing], but I couldn’t do anything about it.”
The competitions may have ended, but the competitive spirit had not. Kozai recognized there may still be a place for her in he Bruin program.
“I wasn’t done with the team’s expectations,” she said. “I wanted to be involved, in some way, so I became a team manager and eventually, an undergrad assistant coach.”
The new role, she soon discovered, had its own unique challenges, ones she had never considered.
“Where I was once a teammate, I was now a coach, and that was a difficult adjustment,” she said.
The relationship with head coach Kondos Field has flourished, and Kozai credits her with helping her not only through a difficult turn in her life, but with growing up.
“When I came in as a freshman, I was a completely different person. I’ve grown far more than I ever expected, due in large part to her.”
Kozai leaves UCLA with a new destination on her radar, as she will pursue a master’s degree in sports management at the University of San Francisco. She’ll follow in the footsteps of her sister, Kendall, who last month completed her law degree at USF (see sidebar).
Though her athletic involvement took a turn she never planned, Kozai has found satisfaction.
“Doing it physically, I was always worried about performing, about being perfect, always conscious about detail,” she explained. “Now, I can see it as fans see it, and I can enjoy gymnastics for the beautiful sport it is.”