Kassidy Kozai needed surgery to reconstruct a torn medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee three years prior to enrolling in college.
It wasn’t the UCLA gymnastics undergraduate assistant coach’s first operation – she went under the knife at the age of 13 for a spinal fusion procedure – nor would it be her last. For the next three years she’d have to go through the annual process of getting rid of accumulated scar tissue in her knee.
A popped bicep, a broken toe – the injuries kept on coming. But they never could break her spirit.
“She mentally just willed herself to get better,” said Kathy Kozai, Kassidy’s mother.
“The doctors were even shocked that she came back after every single injury, after every surgery.”
The girl affectionately known as “tenacity Kassidy” would return to competitive gymnastics each time, ready to make the race back to competitive fitness.
All that determination and all that perseverance finally flourished in 2010. Kassidy Kozai was accepted to her top-choice university – she was officially a Bruin.
The next thing on the agenda was representing the four letters that formed the basis of her dreams growing up, but the injuries she accumulated over the years made sure chasing that dream would become another mountain to climb.
“Every time I would have a good day, the next day it would be like another battle,” Kozai said. “So I felt like I would take one step forward and multiple steps back.”
After two years of struggling to keep up with the setbacks from her injuries, it was time for her to take one final step back.
She now had to use that willpower to completely give up the sport that dominated her life since the age of 6.
Thing of the Past
Giving up gymnastics was like giving up her identity. That was the hardest part for Kozai.
She remembered how her parents introduced her to friends as “(their) daughter, the gymnast.” She could no longer devote the seven hours, six days a week she used to in her club gymnasium to perfect her craft.
“She came from a gym that was very strict; they made them feel like gymnastics was their life and school comes second,” said team manager Cory Tomlinson. “And so when she’s taking the opportunity to step away from gymnastics into something that feels like a real-world-not-gymnastics role (it) was obviously very difficult for her, because her whole life she knew that her identity was in gymnastics.”
When Kozai brought the decision to her parents they reacted by showing the same support that they gave her throughout her 14-year journeyman gymnastics career.
They were proud of their daughter’s maturity; in the face of adversity she was able to carefully assess the situation and make the best decision for herself on her own terms.
“It was one of those things where if we told her she had to give it up I think it would have been more damage to her than if she thought of this on her own because she needed to make the decision,” Kathy Kozai said. “She needed to have closure.”
But injury didn’t completely shut the door to Kassidy Kozai’s competitive past; rather, it left it slightly ajar. She might not have been able to keep up physically anymore, but she’ll always retain the mentality of an athlete, something that’s helped her connect with the team in her new role, which came into play even during the team’s most recent meet: the Pac-12 Championships.
Freshman Hallie Mossett fell off the uneven bars during that meet – taking a blow that hit her back and her confidence. Mossett was shaken by the 8.175 score and the concern that she let her team down.
It was time for coach Valerie Kondos Field to deploy Kozai.
“I basically told her to erase everything that just happened, to go up on balance beam and be the fierce Beyoncé we all knew she could be,” Kozai said.
But there was one final piece of advice built from all the time they spent working on Mossett’s beam routine together in Yates Gym.
“Show me your lips, show me your smile and just do the best beam routine you can,” Kozai said to Mossett.
Mossett hit a 9.825.
Kassidy Kozai’s parents sat across the table from their daughter’s elementary school teacher.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kozai,” the teacher said. “I just want to tell you there’s nothing wrong; Kassidy’s great. But I think she has to realize that I’m the teacher and she’s the student.”
It seemed like the knack for instruction was always within Kozai from a young age, though sometimes more evident to others than herself. In transitioning from competitor to coach, Kozai found uncomfortable situations where she had to critique gymnasts who, just a while ago, were her peers.
“That was also a really weird transition, not being told what to do anymore, but kind of giving orders to girls was hard to step up into,” Kozai said. “I just felt really awkward.”
But Kondos Field had her reasons to pick Kozai to be an undergraduate assistant coach.
To qualify for that position, the candidate has to be a former student athlete able to assist with drills, choreography and routines. Kozai fit the bill and more.
“He always says to me, ‘Everybody in their life should have a Kassidy Kozai by their side,’” Kondos Field said, recalling what a leadership coach once told her. “She makes us look good. She catches everything I don’t catch. … She can be anything she wants because she’s got the talent, the drive and brains to do it.”
Kozai stood next to senior Sydney Sawa by the edge of the floor routine mat on a Tuesday morning practice. Using the demarcation to mimic the 3.9 inches of space she has on the balance beam, Sawa dipped her head to the side, the rest of her body followed, making a revolution through the air before she landed on her feet, completing the side aerial.
Sawa steps back to her original starting position, while Kozai moves to observe from a different angle, each time offering a different perspective on what Sawa needs to do to perfect the skill.
After a couple more goes, Kondos Field checks in on Sawa’s progress.
“I think we’re good here,” Kozai said.
Today, Kozai is the teacher.