“We’re raising the standards and they are rising to it.” – Wendy Bruce-Martin

Inside Gymnastics sat down with Swiss head coach Wendy Bruce-Martin and beam choreographer Nicole Langevin for an in-depth conversation following the 2022 DTB Pokal Team Challenge & Mixed Cup in April

By Christy Sandmaier

The Role, The Mission and The Team Behind the Team

It’s been an incredible, life-changing six months for Wendy Bruce-Martin. In December of 2021, The Central Committee of the Swiss Gymnastics Federation elected her the new head coach of women’s artistic gymnastics, where she’d served ad interim as coach of the national squad in the National Federation Center in Magglingen (along with Tony Retrosi) since mid-October 2021. A 1992 Olympic team bronze medalist, 1989 World Team and five-time U.S. National Team member, Bruce-Martin brings to the floor an incredible resume as an athlete, coach, choreographer and clinician. As leader of the new era of Swiss gymnastics she’s on the floor side-by-side with the young women she calls the most talented she’s seen, while setting the overall strategy for the program.

In so many ways, it’s the role she’s been training for her whole life.

“My mission is to create a culture and training environment that empowers the Swiss National Women’s Gymnastics Team with the skills needed to succeed to achieve excellence in sport as well as life,” Bruce-Martin said following the announcement. 

It’s a mission designed to focus on athletes as people first, with sustainable success in the gym and in competition to follow. As a result of her own experiences in the sport, Bruce-Martin understands the importance of positive coaching, patience, and trusting the process as the program is restructured and the coaches and athletes work together towards new goals. She knows how important it is that every athlete be coached individually as their own person, and to celebrate their progress on and off the floor each step of the way. 

The team itself has no doubt already been inspired by the success of three-time Olympian Giulia Steingruber, the first Swiss female gymnast to win an Olympic medal and European All-Around title and Bruce-Martin recognizes how powerful it is for the athletes to have such a strong role model. “They were lucky enough to be able to train with Giulia, so they know what’s possible,” she notes. In time, she’d love to give all of her athletes the same opportunities for success and knows in order to do that, she’ll constantly be making adjustments and learning right alongside her athletes.

“On one hand, it’s really exciting for me because I feel like I think I know what we should do. And then there’s twelve different kids with twelve different ways they need to do things, so I need to adjust and be better every day,” she says. 

In addition to designing and introducing a new conditioning program and reworking the day-to-day assignments for the senior team, implementing a clear and structured system of what’s expected of the juniors is first on her agenda. As is bringing together and leading the right team of experts to help make it happen.

That team includes her longtime friend Nicole Langevin, who Bruce-Martin brought on board as beam choreographer earlier this year. Langevin, the Owner of Precision Choreography and Co-Owner along with Chellsie Memmel of My Gym Judge, is extremely excited to be part of the new equation. “I want this team, the seniors and the juniors, to capitalize in the areas that they are capable of capitalizing immediately,” she told us, “and maybe in areas they don’t necessarily spend all their time on.”

Together, they have an unbeatable work ethic and their passion for the sport has only multiplied since beginning their journeys with the Swiss team. They love what they do and they’re also incredibly funny. As the story goes, they bonded over bread in the only restaurant that was open one evening after working at Retrosi’s camp in Massachusetts years ago and the rest is history (that may also involve some pretty calculated and competitive axe throwing in Alaska).

Just hours after returning from the DTB Pokal Team Challenge & Mixed Cup in Stuttgart in April, Bruce-Martin and Langevin joined up for a chat with Inside Gymnastics to talk about all things Team Suisse, strategy, and the balance they’ve achieved together to promote athlete-centered coaching in such a demanding sport.

With such a positive energy, it was hard to choose just one highlight, but what stood out to me in a very big way was Bruce-Martin’s candid approach to working with all of her athletes on their individual journeys, especially those who have been faced with injuries. She never wants them to feel as though they’re not valued and she appreciates that success might look markedly different to each of them. This builds trust. This builds a team. 

It was a conversation that left me truly inspired and very much looking forward to seeing a Swiss contingent that could very well begin to consistently challenge for podium positions in the very near future.

The Conversation

Wendy, your position as head coach was announced in December, with a start date of February 1, 2022. What’s the progress report so far through DTB? How’s it going? 

Wendy Bruce-Martin: We’ve said this before, I don’t think it’s a secret. I think this is the most talented group of athletes in one spot. From the beginning, we started implementing conditioning and some basics that they just didn’t work on [previously] because they just didn’t know they needed to. We started implementing those exercises in the conditioning to where they’re really understanding the process of structuring workouts and competing. Now, they’re at a main level of conditioning and strength to where we’re ready to take that next step of making them even stronger, more conditioned, with more endurance. 

We competed at DTB, well, I didn’t compete, I just stood there and then nervously paced back and forth (laughs)! We originally had five kids in mind for DTB, and within the last six weeks before the competition, two of them were injured and two got COVID. So, we went with three kids. Each of them just did two events. Chiara Giubellini competed as a senior for the first time. Ana (Pascu) competed for the first time after breaking both of her ankles and having two ankle surgeries. Martina (Eisenegger) competed in Arthur Gander last year. She’s such a hard worker!

Giubellini qualified for finals on vault and floor. She’s really good! We didn’t compete her in finals because she landed short on her Yurchenko double, but it was her first time ever competing it. I asked her if she felt like she could compete [in finals], and she said, ‘I don’t know.’ So I said, ‘then that’s a no. I want you to be absolutely sure you’re ready, not question it.’ We pulled her, but we watched finals, and I think she realized she could have been there. Each one of them had some really strong, cool moments and what it did was also get them on the international stage and bring back to the team a little bit of inspiration. So it was a good moment for us. 

These girls are really, really talented athletes that have had some really major injuries. So everybody’s kind of on their own path. It’s individual girls on different paths at different parts of their season. It’s been a lot to try to figure that out, but I think we’re to a point now where we have a pretty good grasp on what our season plan is.

Tell me about the leadership qualities that you are looking for in your coaches, and about bringing Nicole on board.

WBM: What we needed was specific people to put into spots, like a puzzle. I needed to have somebody be able to come in and say, ‘okay, this is what I see. This is what they need. I’m going to go do it,’ and not have me say, ‘this is what you need to do,’ because I already have a million things that I need to worry about!

Chris Lakeman is the new junior director. When he asked who to bring in, I was like, well, obviously, Nicole, because first of all, her energy and the way she can conduct the rotations, stations and the clinics – I know that we’re not going to have to watch over her. We’re just going to say, ‘this is what we need. We need you on beam.’ And she’ll look at the kids and be like, ‘okay, this is what I’m doing with you.’ I know I can one hundred percent trust her because she already recognizes what they need. I always joke that I think her and Chris are like gym brothers and sisters… Like they’re twins, as far as their energy and their knowledge. I knew they were going to work well together.

Nicole Langevin: It kind of turned out to be true. It’s weird in a great way!

WBM: I think that the Swiss coaches were very open to hearing everything that [Nicole] had to say, and were very eager to learn. That just hadn’t been the culture here before. There wasn’t a lot of openness, cheering, positive, fun. I bought my own speakers and the other coaches were like, ‘the radio isn’t loud enough for you?’ I’m like, ‘no, we need loud music, we need to get our energy going!’ 

Besides the culture and the environment and setting that up, it’s also being able to see a skill and break it down and then create drills and conditioning for it. That’s what they were missing. If you’re giving a correction, some of them can’t even put their arms over their head. So you’re asking them to do something they physically can’t do or keeping a body shape, and they don’t know how. Some weren’t aware of how to just pull their ribs in and keep a straight body line. They are so talented they could do all this stuff by themselves, but they weren’t strategically taught those structures. Just going back and implementing basics into a system that already has a whole bunch of talented and motivated athletes and coaches… I think it’s going to be exciting!

Nicole, you posted about feeling invested after just a couple days, and you were just so happy and feeling amazing about it. Tell me about your first week on site in Switzerland!

NL: The junior camp was a very structured four-day training that Chris led. It was his first time running the camp. He did phenomenal. It was extremely structured, but it was also very interesting to go in and know that these coaches are not necessarily expecting somebody to step in and lead the rotation. I think they’re more used to doing their own thing. I definitely brought a little bit of strategy just to make sure that I was coming in and not saying, ‘I’m here from the U.S., this is what we’re doing.’ I’m trying to lead in a way that is approachable. 

There’s a language barrier, too – and Wendy’s talked about this a lot – you get so used to the way you say things, and both of us are so much about communicating with the athletes and the coaches and having conversations. [It’s] not just about, ‘alright, this is the position you should be in, but talking about what it feels like and what you can compare it to. When you can’t do that, it forces you outside your own comfort zone, which is good, because then you develop other tools. 

You could feel the sense of pride with the kids that they had being in that facility. There was a moment when Wendy had left for Stuttgart… and there’s a warm up that the seniors do, and the juniors had learned it. Wendy said, ‘I want them to do it together.’ When Chris lined the juniors up and said, ‘Okay, when the seniors come in today, you’re going to do that warm up together,’ their faces… I almost cried! It gave me chills, just to know and imagine what that felt like for them. There was a kid who told me flat out she couldn’t do a front aerial and [now] I have a video of her doing this gorgeous front aerial that’s ready for beam. I know them as people now and was really able to have moments with each and every one of them. It felt really great to work with Chris and be on that same page. He’s got a fantastic mind and they’re in really great hands, so I hope to continue doing it!

Both of you have mentioned just how talented these athletes are. What additional qualities have they shown that are promising for the future of the program overall?

WBM: On a gymnastics level, they’d gotten to a point where some of their gymnastics plateaued, and they were getting a little frustrated of why it’s plateaued. We all know without basic strength and technique – that’s what happens with talent – it plateaus, but they’re eager to understand what they can do to get through that. They want to learn, they want to be better, they want to be here. It did take a little bit of us explaining why it’s important to have your arm by your ear on a round off, for example. We’ve had a lot of video analysis days so they can understand the process. They truly want to understand why, because if they can understand why and add that to their talent, then it clicks. 

On a personal level, they all either live with host families here or by themselves in apartments. They’re extremely independent. They call the doctor on their own, make their own appointments for physio and the doctor, and go over for their appointment. They’ll bring the results back and they’ll let me know. The schooling system here, too, is very different. So they’re learning things way above what we learned [in the U.S.]. 

They know five or six languages, some of them. They’re just honest, good kids. So it’s really easy to love them. I think that’s one of the reasons I stayed. I wanted to make sure they would be in good hands. I knew that, obviously, I don’t know everything, but I at least know the people who do. I knew that I wanted to make sure that they were going to get what they needed. It’s more than just gymnastics. I think they know that we really care about them as people.

NL: Going back to the talent level, it’s unbelievable what they were able to get and what we were able to do together over a screen, with a language barrier. And I mean language barrier for me, not them – they’re fine. The ability they had to pick up beam choreography over a screen and not simple beam choreography, things with nuance, spoke volumes to me. 

Wendy, you mentioned early on when your position was announced and on Nicole’s podcast that 2024 comes up quickly, but 2028 is definitely something you are focusing on. What are the keys necessary to build the program?

WBM: There’s definitely two parts of it. We need to have a very clear and structured system of what’s expected of the juniors. Because there are some really good coaches here, but they’ve been doing it alone. Being able to reach out and communicate with the coaches, being more understanding and that we’re not trying to change them; we’re trying to help them make their life easier and help them be better coaches and help their athletes as well. It’s just going to make Switzerland better. And then taking the national team we have now… they weren’t coached maybe as much as they could have been through no fault of anybody, that was just the situation. And so [it’s] being able to take them and get them to their best, whatever that might be. 

As I mentioned, we have a lot of really good athletes who have been really injured and I want to make sure that they never feel like they’re pushed to the side or not valued. I want them to know that whatever they do, we acknowledge the work that they’ve done. It’s so interesting because it’s almost like club gymnastics on a national team level. You take every single girl where they are and make them as good as they can be and then compete them and see where they end up. It’s the same that you would do for anybody.

We’re making sure they’re where they need to be strength-wise. Just hours in the gym… they weren’t up to a normal level, but they didn’t know that. We’ve raised the numbers that they do and the conditioning. Now they’re realizing, ‘oh, I’m better when I’m this strong.’ We’re raising the standards and they are rising to it.

NL: And what I want to be able to do is say ‘okay, maybe we’re not going to be the highest vaulters in the world this year, but we can have the best rhythm on beam in the entire world. We can have the most beautiful artistic leap passage transitions in the entire world.’ The things that we can capitalize on, that’s what I would like to see, that they can stand out in those areas.

It’s always tough for an athlete and support staff when a new leader comes in, no matter the necessity or excitement level. Are you starting to feel buy in and trust developed? 

WBM: I think it comes in levels as well. I think at the beginning they definitely didn’t like us, not disrespectfully at all. We come in and we say, ‘oh, we’re going to train this amount of hours a week.’ We didn’t know that they didn’t train that. So they were very tired and sore, and, of course, with the language – and they all speak great English – but unless we ask them a specific question, they don’t just give the information out regularly. It took me about two months to say, well, ‘what exact conditioning did you do?’ And then they showed me the paper. I’m like, ‘that’s not really conditioning. So, now I understand why you were so tired, because we did a lot more than you’re used to.’  

NL: I did, I did with the kids. On the very first rotation on the very first day we were doing tour jetes and switch halfs. I somehow had the right kid with the right drill at the right time. And she did it – she felt her oversplit and she landed and her face lit up! For me, it was more the coaches and not being able to have my personal touch of how I typically can relate to coaches. I think it definitely took a couple of days because there are certain things like beam acro landings, that if you only see step one and you don’t realize that’s actually step one of three, it gets lost in translation. Some of them were thinking, ‘why are you teaching that?’ and it was hard to explain. By the second day when they were able to see the progressions together, you could see the light bulb go off. Honestly, they needed to see it instead of me explaining it. That’s the new tool that I’ve had to develop – figuring out how to relate visually and then talking later. 

What have you both taken from your own experiences as athletes and working with different coaches that you have incorporated into your own coaching? Or not? 

NL: I remember going into the gym and not knowing what type of day it was going to and it caused anxiety. So when I was running my program, I was always very clear with the athletes on what the expectations are, what they need to prepare themselves for, the why behind everything. I had a moment with the junior team on the third day where it was the second practice of the day, and it’s a lot. It’s a lot of gymnastics. You could just see them emotionally, physically starting to get a little drained. When that happens, you get a little tense. Emotions start running high. It was about a minute and a half, I think, and I just took them over and had them sit on their knees and I said, ‘you are here because you’re great. Just think about that for a second. You can be frustrated, you can not be getting something, but you’re in this building right now because you’re great.’ We did a couple of breathing things and we moved on. If they’re elite athletes, they’re not going to rest on their laurels. I think it’s our job every once in a while to let them enjoy the moment and give themselves some credit. 

WBM: I was lucky enough to have really good coaches. I remember Kevin Brown would always give me that high five and hug regardless of what I did. It was never a personal judgment. I have a really good understanding now of him just wanting to have the answers for me. I think that’s where I feel like as a coach, I want to have all the answers for them if they don’t compete well. 

The country is amazing. Management above us is phenomenal. So it’s so easy to be able to want to be better here. I feel like I’m literally at the beginning of my coaching career. I’m so energized to learn! I know as a gymnast, I always wanted to be the best gymnast I could be. And I feel that way as a coach. I want to be the best coach. I want to be the world’s best coach. Not ego-wise, but I think that when you have that competitiveness inside of you, I want to know what you know. Like, when Nicole comes in and she talks, I take everything in because I just put that in my pocket, and I’m going to use that now.

Put yourself in these same chairs a year from now. What does success look like?

WBM: Having a very clear structure of the system here. Having completed that, as far as the juniors, I think all the coaches are going to buy in. We keep promising a clear understanding of what the expectations are. Having that finalized would be a success, having everybody finish the year on a completed goal, whatever that might be from whoever that would be. I would love for the girls to have a little bit more of the basics and the conditioning down and have the fundamentals a little stronger because I know with that, the outcome will be there.

NL: I want to see Wendy have a permanent team. I want to see her have an assistant coaching staff that is permanent, gelled and a great fit and everything that she needs so that she can do what she does best and continue to learn in the areas that she wants to learn. As far as the juniors, I want to be able to be their go-to person on a regular basis. I really do want to be a part of that journey with them and help them continue to grow in a gymnastics way physically, but also to see their confidence develop even beyond more than it is now!

Look for more from Wendy Bruce-Martin and Nicole Langevin on Team Suisse, and Wendy’s perspective on the 1992 Olympics and what it taught her as an athlete and coach in the August Issue of Inside Gymnastics magazine!

Photo credits/courtesy of Nicole Langevin and Wendy Bruce-Martin; Chiara Giubellini/Instagram

For more on Nicole Langevin and her article, So, You Want a Higher Floor Score? see our 2022 Coach’s Resource Guide

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