When the No. 9 UCLA women’s gymnastics team hosts No. 25 NC State on Monday afternoon, the Bruins will be holding the first annual Heart of a Champion meet to help raise funds for a cause very near and dear to their hearts – Camp del Corazon, a non-profit organization that provides a summer camp to youngsters with heart disease.
Heart disease is an issue hits close to home for the Bruins.
Assistant coach Chris Waller was born with a congenital heart defect, and underwent his first open heart surgery at the age of 15. He went on to win several NCAA titles as a gymnast for UCLA, and eventually competed for the United States in the 1992 Olympics. Waller had his second open heart surgery five years ago, and is scheduled for another one in the near future.
So, when UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field met a woman involved with the camp, the cause pulled at her heartstrings. Kondos Field and Waller met with the folks at the camp to see how UCLA women’s gymnastics could help.
“We thought it was a great fit for us to inspire these kids and do whatever we could to help a remarkable camp,” Waller said.
Senior gymnastics Niki Tom and Mizuki Sato were so touched by the camp’s mission they volunteered to work there last summer. While they were working, Waller and Kondos Field went to visit and speak at the camp.
“It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had. I’ve done a lot of motivational speeches – maybe 500 in my lifetime – and that was the first time I spoke to a group of people who had a heart condition,” Waller said. “When I spoke, the way that they were riveted with what I saying I realized the kind of positive impact we could have on these very impressionable young people.”
What really struck Waller was the kids have almost no restrictions despite their health limitations.
“If you have a heart condition as a kid, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll be able to attend a summer camp,” Waller said. “This provides the opportunity for kids that wouldn’t otherwise go to a summer camp.
“There are some kids have had one open heart surgery, and they’re not looking at having another one. But a lot of them just feel emotionally different than everybody. Then, you have other kids that are on 20 medications a day, have a nurse with them 24 hours a day, who are extremely high risk and have had eight or 10 surgeries, and it is just unbelievable that they get an opportunity to be a kid for a week.”
Tom and Sato were also moved by the experience.
“It was the most amazing experience of my life,” Tom said. “Misuki and I talk about it at least once a week. To be a part of these children’s lives and let them experience life and try new things that they wouldn’t otherwise get to try because of their health issues. This camp lets them get out of the house and out of the hospital. It is really the safest play they can be because there are so many doctors and nurses with them at all times. I worked with kids between eight and 10 years old, and I never thought someone that young could teach you the value of life. It allowed me to appreciate every little thing we get to do in life.”
“You go to this place and you don’t recognize the doctors and the nurses because they all look like counselors,” Waller said. “There are almost as many staff people as there are kids. They are all volunteering their time and efforts — not only their medical expertise, but also jumping in and doing the activities and the skits that the campers are doing.”
UCLA partnered with Camp del Corazon in order to raise funds and give the organization exposure by dedicating the NC State meet to the cause. Heart of a Champion t-shirts will be sold for $10 and give the buyer free general admission with all proceeds from sales going to Camp del Corazon.
Fourteen campers will sing the National Anthem for the meet, while iCarly star Noah Munck, a former camper, will speak about the camp at the meet. Munck and the UCLA team will sign autographs following the meet.
“I’ve been looking forward to this meet the whole entire year, more so than even the postseason because the kids get to come out and we can see them and interact with them again,” Tom said.
The Heart of a Champion meet will be held on Feb. 21 at 1 p.m. PT (4 p.m. ET). UCLABruins.com will host a free live video and audio feed, along with live scoring.