Wendy Bruce Martin On Fear And Moving On

Also, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist is a beagle fan.

Hello cats and kittens. I hope you’re all hanging in there as we approach day whatever of this quarantine. What even is time anymore? 

I think we all can learn from Will in About A Boy about how to approach the days without despair. 

Except we can’t get our hair carefully disheveled at the salon because of social distancing. Oh god, I need a haircut. My hair is starting to resemble a lion’s mane. I’m concerned that Carole Baskin is going to capture me and take me back to her sanctuary. 

Anyway, if you are able to help support the newsletter during this time, I’d greatly appreciate it. 

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The 1992 Summer Olympics took place when I was nine years old. By that time, I had been doing gymnastics for a little over a year and had been obsessed with the sport for even longer. The ‘92 Games were to be the first that I was planning to watch as a bona fide gymnastics fan. So I told my mother that I wasn’t planning on going to sleepaway camp that summer; I had to stay home to watch the Olympics on television. This didn’t go over well.

Despite my protests, I found myself on a coach bus for the three hour-plus trip up to Narrowsburg, NY, for six weeks of Jewish girl camp. (For the record, I really liked going to this camp.) My mother sent me all of the clippings she found about gymnastics in the newspaper; hell, sometimes she mailed the entire sports section. And my older sister recorded most of the gymnastics competition for me. 

When I got home from camp, the first thing I did was dump six weeks’ worth of smelly laundry into the washing machine. Then I put the first of two VHS tapes into the VCR to watch the Games a couple of weeks after the fact. And then I watched them again. And again. I watched those tapes so many times that they warped and the sound got distorted. I had every score memorized, and I knew which ad appeared before the commercial break ended so I knew exactly when to stop fast-forwarding. I was, in a word, obsessed.

If you had told 9-year-old Dvora that one day she would be able to interview several members of that team, she probably wouldn’t have believed you. And if you told her that one of those team bronze medalists would send Lizzie, her beloved beagle mix, a leotard, she probably would’ve passed out from delight. (First because of the gymnastics part and second because it would mean that, in the future, she had a dog.) 

Well sometimes life doesn’t suck because all of that actually happened. (It’s good to remind yourself about happy things in the midst of this pandemic and resultant quarantine.) A couple of weeks ago, a package arrived addressed, not to me, but to “Lizzy Meyers.” It contained some particularly smelly dried salmon treats. Then another arrived, also addressed to the canine. This one had a leotard. Lizzie was only into the first gift, but the gymternet preferred the second one. 

(I provided the gold medal. I think we all know that if Lizzie did gymnastics, she’d be a gold medalist.)

These both arrived courtesy of noted beagle mix fan Wendy Bruce Martin, who won a bronze medal with the 1992 U.S. Olympic team and also competed on the 1989 world championship team. I’ve interviewed Wendy a few times over the years and she had the opportunity to meet Lizzie (and me, but that’s not really exciting) when she accompanied her daughter to New York City for a cheer competition. Clearly Lizzie left a lasting impression on her. 

Wendy has remained involved with the sport since retiring; she works as a coach/choreographer for Precision Choreography and she also founded Get Psyched, a sports mental training company.

Even though Wendy had already done so much (for Lizzie and others), I reached out and asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions via email about her career and the culture of coaching, and what she thinks about Lizzie’s gymnastics potential. 

Below are her responses, lightly edited for clarity.

Dvora Meyers: You competed at the Olympics and are very well-acquainted with the focus and drive and effort that goes into preparing for the Games. Thinking back to when you were 19 and preparing for the Olympics, how would you have felt about all the uncertainty that led up to the IOC deciding to postpone the Games? And do you think that if you had been in a similar circumstance, you would have hung around for an extra year?

Wendy Bruce Martin: In 1992 I was 19; I had been in gymnastics since I was 5 and I was done with gymnastics. I knew I was retiring after the Olympics and I needed to go on with my life. The year of the Olympics was the most stressful and anxious year of my life. Everything mattered. Everything was strategically done to peak for Olympic Trials and then (hopefully) the Olympics. I had been running a marathon for 14 years and when the end was in sight, I put everything into that last push and was sprinting to the finish line. When I crossed the line (finished competing in the Olympics), I collapsed with pure complete mental and physical exhaustion. Now, it's like these athletes have seen the end, they have put everything into their final sprint, and then realize the finish line has moved another five miles further away. 

If I had to put myself into today's situation I am not sure what would have happened. I was healthy in 92. Would I have been stronger in 93 or would I have burned out? I honestly don't know. 

Then comes the other factor of would I have been in the top six in 93 if that gave others another year to improve? Again, I don't know. Everything worked out for me. I was dealt a hand that won in 92, but may have been beaten in 93. 

Now, I know that this extra year gives all the gymnasts another year to improve and put things in perspective. There is never a time when the gymnastics world is forced to stay home. Usually, it is frowned upon to take time off. This time can give the gymnasts time to refill their buckets for that finish line. If they continue to sprint to the finish, they might burn out. So this time of quarantine can give them enough time to rest and recoup and get back on the road. 

DM: Athletes dream of the Olympics for their whole lives. What were your expectations about competing at a Games? Did your Olympic experience meet the expectations you had going in?

WBM: I never outwardly discussed what I thought my life would be after the Olympics, but I think it was assumed that when someone works their entire life for a dream and accomplishes it, then all will be right in the world. Think about every movie we watch or story we read: The hard work always leads to a fairytale ending of eternal wealth, love, and happiness. I do feel the importance placed on making the Olympics made me think that if I make it, I will have everlasting success in life. 

The Olympic "high" lasted a couple of months. I thought people would care more about winning a medal in the Olympics, but I had a team bronze, and it wasn't marketable. Agents weren't interested, companies wanted stories of training your entire life and the struggle and then finally the fairytale story of winning gold; no one was interested in training your entire life and only coming in third.  I realized that no one was interested in celebrating our bronze medal, especially after [the] 1996 [U.S. women’s gymnastic team] gold. They were on Wheaties boxes, made the TV circuit, and were deservingly celebrated for their success. It solidified the fact that my Olympics was not the answer to my eternal happiness. 

DM: How did you come to the decision to retire from gymnastics?

WBM: I was 19 and tired. I began to have real fears with my skills and thought I was on borrowed time. I was done. There was nothing more I needed or wanted from gymnastics. I used to love the feeling of flying; I used to love the feeling of hitting; I used to love pushing myself beyond what I thought I was capable of. After 14 years of flying, hitting, and pushing I knew what I could do and I was just too tired to push anymore.

[Ed. note: Wendy did attempt a brief comeback in 1994 and competed at the national championships that year.]

DM: A lot of athletes across many different sports say that it can be hard to adjust to life after you've left the sport. What was that transition like for you? 

WBM: Oh my gosh, it was terrible. I went from having a (pressure-filled) strict daily and hourly schedule to an open day. I went from someone telling me what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, to no one telling me anything. I went from challenging myself every day to looking for something to challenge me. I went from feeling emotions of fear to exhilaration to feelings of emptiness. From the time I was five, I was trained to live my life with a purpose, and then one day I had no purpose. I was lost. Without a specific direction, I didn't know where to go, what to do. When you get used to a life where every day is a challenge, every day matters, and every day is filled with extreme emotion, whether you like it or not, that is what you are programmed to expect. So where do you find that challenge or emotion? Without help, we fall into it. I dated guys that caused drama, I partied a lot, stayed out late, found unhealthy ways for me to challenge myself and feel something. 

It wasn't until I met my husband Dennis, and had our two daughters, that I started to find a healthy purpose again. I was a mom, wife, and best friend. I started to find new things that challenged me, such as working out, writing, and learning. I loved that I could challenge myself in new ways that were just as fulfilling as gymnastics. I went back to college to finish my degree. I fell in love with psychology and founded a mental training company. I love being able to take what I have learned through my gymnastics career, after gymnastics was over, and through research education [to] teach those theories to athletes today. 

DM: What was your favorite competition to participate in?

WBM: I don't remember many of my competitions. I remember the stuff we did before and after the competitions. I loved Belgium; I think I got second all-around, but I remember buying chocolate at Leonidas. We took a four-person bicycle around the center of the city with my coach Kevin Brown and the guy gymnast and his coach (I can't believe I can't remember their names…). My memories of that trip were warm and fuzzy.

I loved competing at competitions in the U.S. that were festivals or more than just a one-day gymnastics competition. I loved when we got to do more than just gymnastics. 

DM: You've spoken about the culture of gymnastics and how you experienced it during your time as a gymnast. What do you think needs to change? What are some of the necessary steps that must be taken to effect any kind of change?

WBM: I think coaching needs to be a profession, where the people who are responsible for the well-being of our children are taught how to teach them. Gymnastics coaches (or many other coaches) don't need an education, license, or certification to teach. They don't have to know anything about child development, psychology, or physiology. They don't need to have any mandatory training or governing body to uphold them to any standards. Yet, we leave them with our children during their most influential developmental stages of life and "hope" they know what they're doing. 

Coaches should want to be certified. First, they should want to be educated in all the areas they will need to coach. It would make their job easier if they were properly prepared and educated. Second, they should want to separate the qualified coaches from the "others". Right now, there is no way to distinguish the coaches who have done the work to learn their sport and the ones that pretend. Lastly, the coaches should also want to have an official licensing board to be able to be held accountable to and be able to monitor and report to. 

DM: Your daughters participate in cheer, and I know you've been involved in that world as a parent for several years. Is the culture of cheer at all similar to that of gymnastics?

WBM: Cheer is similar in that it is a sport that takes athleticism, consistency, and commitment. In the realm of sports, it's fairly new and learning as it goes. The culture is changing quicker than it is with gymnastics. It's watching what is happening in gymnastics and making changes faster than the gymnastics community is. 

DM: Is Lizzie the best beagle mix you've ever met?

WBM: Beagles are by far my favorite dog. My first dog was a beagle mix. Lizzie is by far my favorite. A Jewish beagle from NY; she's got everything. 

DM: If Lizzie did gymnastics, what would be her best event?

WBM: Lizzie is amazing with her artistry. She probably would rock a floor routine. 

[Ed. note: If you’re interested in the music Lizzie might perform to, she discussed that topic with me in this newsletter.]

Last week I saw a tweet from Pamchenkova, which is one of the best Twitter accounts to follow if you’re the kind of person who likes to watch ol’ gems of routines that you never previously knew about, that made me think of an additional question that I wanted to ask Wendy.

As the tweet notes, as a gymnast, Wendy struggled with the Yurchenko style—roundoff back handspring entry—vault, which was introduced by Soviet legend Natalia Yurchenko. In the video, Wendy balks at the vault three times. 

I sent Wendy a question, asking about her past issues with the vault and how she was able to pull off two spectacular full-twisting Yurchenkos in Barcelona. This part of the interview was conducted over the phone. Here’s what Wendy had to say about why she struggled with this particular skill:

When we learned that vault, we had to learn it very quickly. Because the Yurchenko came very quickly onto the scene. I was very good at doing it. 

Then Julissa got hurt. I never knew exactly what happened; we never knew the details. We knew that she missed her foot on the board and we knew that she hit her head on the table.

[Ed. note: The Julissa that Wendy is referring to is Julissa Gomez. She was a national team member in the mid-to-late 80s and was a hopeful for the 1988 Olympic team. Gomez trained with Martha and Bela Karolyi before leaving their Texas gym to go train with Al Fong at Great American Gymnastics Express in Missouri. In 1988, at an international competition in Japan with Fong, Gomez missed her foot on the springboard and crashed into the vault headfirst and was paralyzed from the neck down. People later noted that they had observed that Gomez wasn’t comfortable with this skill and that her coaches should’ve stopped her from doing it. To make this tragic situation even more horrible, she was accidentally disconnected from a ventilator, which resulted in substantial brain damage. Gomez died about three years later at age 18. As a result of her accident, the International Gymnastics Federation started allowing gymnasts to use a U-shaped mat to place around the springboard to make the preflight phase of the vault safer. If you want to learn more about Gomez, her story was covered in-depth in Joan Ryan’s 1995 bestseller, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.]

I had done a national team camp at Brown's and she [Julissa] was there. It hit really close to home.

We had new mats that we had to use around the board. And nobody really talked about what happened. Nobody talked about it because that made it real. I can’t remember anybody talking to any of us about it. 

I was really scared to do the vault. I didn't do a lot of drills on any event let alone vault. I didn’t realize at the time why I was so scared. All I knew back then was that I was really scared of it.

As I got older, I got more and more scared of it and started getting scared that I would break my neck and become paralyzed. 

I trained in Orlando and my parents lived in Fort Lauderdale and on the drive home there was a paralyzed veterans center on the side. And every time we drove home, I wouldn't look at it because I thought that if I looked at it would give me a jinx. I was really scared that I was going to become paralyzed.

I was really scared to do the vault. I never told anybody about this, because you don’t tell people that you’re scared this was going to happen.

I don’t know why, but I could do the layout but for some reason when it got to the full, I couldn't do it.

When we went to France two weeks before the Olympics, I don't remember doing any vaults. If I did, I did them with a spot. I know I didn't do any by myself. 

When we were warming up for the Olympics in the back gym, I didn't have my coach. I know I didn’t throw any fulls.

At the moment for the Olympics, it was one of those things, the fear of not going for it was greater than the fear of getting hurt.

I knew at that moment, of course I’m going to do the vault. The two vaults that I did were the best vaults of my life. I never did that vault again.