By Paxson Haws
The coach who never intended to be one watched as her team narrowly missed becoming back-to-back-to-back national champions.
Oklahoma gymnasts had finished their rotation and were ahead by .175 last April in St. Louis, Missouri. In the final rotation, a UCLA athlete scored a perfect 10 bringing The Bruins from fourth to national champions with a final score of 198.0750. Oklahoma finished 0.0375 behind.
“It was a tough moment. It was a learning moment for our whole team,” said coach K.J. Kindler. “They certainly did everything they could. Just like the overwhelming feeling of ‘Wow we did it,’ we had that same feeling in reverse. That overwhelming feeling of ‘We thought we had it. We thought we did it.
Kindler, an eight-time regional coach of the year and three-time national champion, did not consider coaching until graduating from Iowa State in 1992. Despite her love for the sport, Kindler envisioned a career in the arts or journalism. When Iowa State University coach Mark Sharples suddenly resigned when Kindler graduated, an opportunity arose. Amy Pyle was promoted to head coach and offered Kindler a position as an assistant.
26 years later, she is considered one of the best college women’s gymnastic coaches in the nation.
“I 100 percent trusted her, believed in her,” Pyle said. “Wanted to give her that space to grow and obviously, she grew into an amazing young woman and, you know, is the No. 1 coach in the NCAA.”
Kindler has been coaching, either at Iowa State or OU, for 27 years but her athletic career did not start on that beam.
It started on the dance floor.
Kindler’s parents put her into dance and baton at age 4. There was tumbling directly after Kindler’s dance class and she would always watch. Her dance teacher suggested switching classes and Kindlers gymnastics career began.
Kindler gained her love and understanding of gymnastics from training at Hamlin University, 30 minutes from her hometown, with her club coach.
“My coach in Minnesota that I grew up with really instilled in me that love for the sport. I was what you would call a gym rat. I was always in there, always wanted to hang around after practice, never left on time, got there early and would have been perfectly happy sleeping there,” Kindler said.
K.J. was not the only Kindler who participated in gymnastics. Her two sisters and brother did, too, though her brother only recreationally. K.J.’s children, nieces and nephews have all tried gymnastics.
“We were together a lot because we were at the gym all the time together,” said Lori, K.J.’s sister.
Lori competed in club, college and now owns her own gym, Flips Gymnastics, in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Lori and K.J. never competed against each other during club but did meet up when K.J. was an assistant coach.
Moving to Connecticut during high school and joining a new club didn’t slow Kindler down any. Instead, she joined a club that helped her improve her technique. But it was her performances at camp in Wisconsin that would vault her to collegiate mats.
Kindler joined the Iowa State women’s gymnastics team as a walk-on in 1988. To make ends meet, Kindler coached young girls at a nearby club, something she continued through her time in Ames.
“I didn’t really think about being a coach. I was just trying to be the best gymnast I could be,” Kindler said.
Kindler was a three time MVP, 1992 Big Eight all-around runner up, three-time NCAA regional qualifier and the first individual regional qualifier in Iowa State history.
Mike Sharples, head coach from 1985-1992, remembers her individual appearance at regionals. She was put into rotation with another team and performed without her teammates there.
“She handled the pressure well and being the only one to go out there and compete as an individual. It’s harder than being there with your teammates. But she did a good job and and represented Iowa State extremely well,” Sharples, who works as a financial planner at MKS Wealth Management in Durham, NC, said.
Kindler’s performance as a athlete is similar to her coaching style. As an athlete, she was determined, creative and had a positive attitude. These are attributes are important when performing and coaching, especially when the event is the balance beam, which Kindler coaches. Kindler carried her performance characteristics into her coaching career. These characteristics came across in her floor exercises, which she choreographed herself.
“I mean, that is a God-given talent. You don’t learn to be a choreographer so to speak. You just have that artistic ability and it’s really rare,” Pyle said.
Sharples’ resignation in the winter of 1992 led to assistant coach Amy Pyle’s promotion. A recent graduate, Kindler was faced with making a career decision. She considered working journalism or doing something in the arts. Instead, Kindler was offered an assistant coaching position. Looking to make ends meet and a believer in timing, Kindler took the opportunity.
“If that hadn’t happened at that time for me, I’m not positive I would have gone into coaching,” Kindler said. “I always loved to do it and was always super passionate about it but there was no plan. The plan just fell into place.”
Kindler stayed as an assistant until being hired as Iowa State’s head coach in 2001. As head coach, Kindler coached six All-Americans, 12 Big 12 champions and took Iowa State to its first Super Six appearance in 2006.
“In Iowa, she was head coach plus they had a gym on the side and coached a lot of young girls in Iowa. But that wasn’t where she really enjoyed what she was doing. She enjoyed coaching them and some of those girls ended up being on the Iowa State team with her. So she enjoyed that a great deal but she was really driven, the thing she wanted to do was have some national championships,” Tom Kindler, K.J.’s father, said.
Still, when OU Athletic Director Joe Castiglione called, Kindler didn’t exactly come running to Norman, Oklahoma.
“You could say the cards were stacked against him,” K.J. said.
Kindler had been at ISU for 18 years and was seven months pregnant with her first child when Castiglione called. A move would mean she would be almost 12 hours from her family instead of 3 and a half hours.
“One, She had experience in building a program. I watched what she had done at Iowa State. Two, I evaluated the success that she was having recruiting elite gymnasts. And three, we ultimately believed that she was the strong leader we needed to building a championship program,” Joe Castiglione, OU’s athletic director, said.
Kindler would inherit the program from Steve Nunno, who coached Shannon Miller in the 1992 Olympics. Nunno coached four NCAA All-Americans and brought the school its first regional championship in 2006. OU’s program had made six NCAA Championship appearances before Kindler.
“For a program like Oklahoma, I thought ‘Gosh, I could make a really big difference and that’s what I wanted to do so I went for it,” Kindler said.
When Kindler arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, she recalls being “shell-shocked.” Facilities were out of date and changes needed to be made. But coming off a Super Six appearance at Iowa State, Kindler had one thing on her mind: the national championship.
“Back then, the idea that this could become the center of the gymnastic universe, at least collegiately, had a certain amount of appeal. And certainly, it has become that,” Castiglione said.
Taking Oklahoma to the level Kindler aspired to reach would not be easy and she knew it.
“It took a lot of hard work. It takes a change in culture. A change in how we approach the sport, our responsibilities, our preparation for our season. There’s just so many things that had to change,” Kindler said.
Kindler’s changes to the program were immediately noticeable. The 2007 season ended with an 8th-place finish at the national championship, the highest place OU’s had received at that point. Kindler’s team has made an NCAA appearance every year since.
In 2014, Kindler’s goal became a reality. She coached the Sooners to their first NCAA national championship with a record-breaking score of 198.175. Kindler coached Taylor Spears to an individual national championship on the balance beam. Spears was OU’s first individual nation champion in 26 years along with two other teammates on floor exercise. Kindler won a championship again in 2016. And 2017.
“It’s so overwhelming. You work for it. You plan for it. You train for it. But when it actually happens, it’s mesmerizing. An out of body experience,” Kindler said.
Through it all, Kindler attributes OU’s success to her staff and athletes. Both assistant coaches also came to OU in 2006. Lou Ball, Kindler’s husband, coaches vault. Tom Haley coaches floor and the two team to co-coach bars. Kindler is primary coach for beam.
“I have an amazing staff and we have been together for 13 years. And I think that continuity is super important to the success of this program. Lou is super clam. Tom is very creative and adds humor to every situation and helps the team relax. I’m more of the intensity of the program. The person who keeps the ship running right. We all add something that so important to the dynamic of the program,” Kindler said.
Former coaches credit OU’s success to Kindler ability both as a coach and as an athlete.
She’s demanding, creative, competitive and compassionate.
“She just has a drive for excellence, an eye for excellence,” Sharples said.
She’s elegant, driven and focused.
“She’s improved the quality of NCAA gymnastics. People,” Pyle said, “are chasing Oklahoma now.”
Gymnasts are chasing Oklahoma because of Kindler.
“She’s a rare package. We’re grateful that she’s our head coach,” Castiglione said.