Read the full, exclusive Q&A with one of the coaches of the best gymnast in the world. Cecile Landi was talking to the official Olympic Channel podcast
Cecile Landi has done almost everything a person can do in the sport of gymnastics. In 1996, her Olympic dreams came true when she competed at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (as Cecile Canqueteau).
Eight years later, she returned to the United States – her favorite country growing up – but this time as a coach.
“I kind of knew where our life was going to go,” Landi told Olympic Channel last week in an exclusive interview. “I felt a little stuck.”
So she, along with husband Laurent, a former French national team member, packed up and moved from Marseilles, France, to Norman, Oklahoma.
Eventually, Cecile and Laurent landed in Dallas and WOGA Gymnastics.
There, the duo went on to coach Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallist Madison Kocian and world champion Alyssa Baumann.
A break ensued after Rio.
“We had done even more than we ever expected to do as coaches,” says Landi. As they tried to figure out what’s next – do they open a gym? Coach internationally? – they received a phone call telling them that Simone Biles was eager to return to gymnastics training, eying Tokyo 2020.
Three years later, the Landis have helped guide Biles to new heights including World titles in 2018 and 2019 and multiple new elements named in her honour. Olympic Channel caught up to Cecile Landi at the start of June 2020 to discuss resetting with Olympic postponement, what makes Simone so great and much more.
What follows is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity. You can also listen to highlights of the interview as part of the official Olympic Channel Podcast.
Olympic Channel: We are here with Cecile Landi, who is a 1996 French Olympic gymnast and now a gymnastics coach, working, of course, with the great four-time Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles in the U.S., Cecile... Great to talk to you. How's it going?
Cecile Landi: It's going well. Thank you.
OC: You're a 1996 Olympian in your own right, even if people maybe may now know you more as coach of Simone. So tell me about your Olympic memories when you look back because you were part of a French team that made a lot of history as well.
CL: We did. I think that's where the world started noticing the French team. The 1992 team started to put France on the map, and then our team just took it from there. And we just kept growing and having great results. The 1996 Olympics… I just remember it like I always loved the U.S. since I was little. For me when I found out, I was little, that the Olympics that I could potentially be in were in the U.S., I was like, 'I've got to do everything I can because it will be two dreams in one: going to the States, plus competing in the Olympic Games'.
It was just huge. During [Covid-19 coronavirus] quarantine this year, I was able to re-watch the 1996 Olympic Games and that was awesome. It was really cool to watch with my daughter and all that, too, to show her this is where I competed and we watched some YouTube videos. It was fun.
Our coaches were like, 'hey, don't think about being in the Olympic Games'. But during the compulsory, we walked in, we just looked and it was like three stories high. There was signs everywhere. I was like, 'How are we not supposed to know we're in the Olympic Games?' There's no way. There were chalk buckets, there were the rings. Everything was so big and so loud, I remember it being really, really loud.
OC: How did you and your husband, Laurent, meet? And how did you end up living and working in the United States?
CL: Well, Laurent and I met a long time ago. We both were gymnasts in France. I think we realised the first meet we did together, I was 12 and he was 14. It was the Youth European Championships, or something like that. We have pictures. I've got to find them because they're quite funny, I have a bowl haircut!
We competed for years together in the same competitions, and then when I retired from elite gymnastics, I kept going for my club and also did a tour. I was in college, and I wanted to do a show in Paris, so I went. Laurent was there. We started talking and we started dating. Then, he moved to where I was because I coached at the National Training Center in Marseilles, where I used to do gymnastics.
He came and after about three years there, I felt a little stuck. I kind of knew where our life was going to go, and it didn't sound exciting. I just didn't want to be stuck forever in the same spot.
So I asked one of my former coaches, who trained and coached at Bart Conner Gymnastics in Norman, Oklahoma, if she knew anyone who would be looking for coaches from France. She called Paul Ziert and Bart and got in contact with them.
At the time, Laurent was only coaching the boys team, and I was coaching the women's team. So when we moved to the U.S., we had never coached together. We moved to the country in 2004, not speaking the language. We were like, all right. It's either make it or break it. We were working together, only talking to each other because we had no friends, no family, nothing. We lived in the little house that Paul had nicely given us. We were in Norman, Oklahoma, all the way from Marseilles, France. It was a big change.
OC: Different worlds for sure.
CL: Oh, very, very different. I think I cried every night the first month.
OC: From Norman, you ended up at WOGA in Dallas, Texas, where you worked with 2016 Olympic champion Madison Kocian and 2014 World gold medallist Alyssa Baumann. Now you're in Houston, working with Simone. How did that come together?
CL: In 2017, after 10 years at WOGA, where we had done even more than we ever expected to do as coaches, we decided to take a little break and see what we wanted to do next. We were doing some clinics and traveling a little bit around the country and just trying to figure out, do we open a gym? Do we try to go to coach a national team internationally? We didn't know.
How can we say no? - Landi on starting to work with Simone Biles
Then the vice president of women's program for USA Gymnastics at the time Rhonda [Faehn] called us and said, "Hey, I don't know what you guys are doing, but Simone wants to come back. Your names were mentioned, and she wanted me to reach out to you guys to see if you would even be interested because she knows you're not coaching right now." She [Simone] had called Maddie and Alyssa even before asking us to ask them, "Would you mind if I take your coaches?" But they were both in college, so it was perfect timing.
We're like, you know what? How can we say no? Honestly. But we wanted to meet with Simone and her parents first and making sure that Simone was really wanted to come back, that it was not for sponsors or anyone else, that she was coming for her. After talking to her, we came back to Dallas and we're like, we got to do it. She really, really wants to come back, and it's her choice. So, we made the move.
OC: There are a lot of exciting things that come with coaching someone like Simone, but there's a lot of pressure, too. What things do you think have been easier than you thought they would be? And what things have been sort of been harder?
CL: Easier... I would say was the relationship with Simone. Laurent knew her a little more than I did because I didn't go to national team camps. I stayed home with our daughter and the other girls that we had on team. You only see one or two on TV, but we had a team of like 20 or 25, so someone had to stay back and make sure they were ready for college and all that. I was the one staying back. He would be traveling, so he knew Simone a little bit more.
But I knew how close to [former coach] Aimee [Boorman] she was, and I didn't want to step over that because it's a relationship that she needs to keep and have forever. So for me, I was a little apprehensive on how we were going to connect. But actually, it went really fast and we have a great relationship - all three of us. So, that was the easiest part.
CL: Gymnastics-wise, we knew she was talented, but she had, for me, more fear than than I expected her to have. She believes in herself, but at the same time she has doubts on a lot of things that she hasn't done before. She's always like, no, I can't do it. I always tell her, you can do anything you put your mind to, you're fine.
There was also the pressure of other people. It was mostly the other people who changed around us. I hope we didn't change. But people around us starting to treat us a little bit differently. In a way, we use it as a good platform to say what we have to say and defend our athletes and make sure we go the right direction. But at the same time, it was weird. Nobody knew my name with Maddie and Alyssa and now... now, this time, they're noticing me. It's a little different.
OC: And even in the relatively short period of time you guys have worked together, the three of you have obviously accomplished so much. What do you think is your proudest moment of of the past two years.
CL: I think the way she, she is. She's so outspoken and she feels that she can say anything. In that way I feel like she's way more confident as a woman than she ever was. It comes with maturity, but also she speaks up, like, we listen to her. As a coach, the 2019 Worlds where I've never seen her feeling so confident and happy to compete. And that beam title, obviously, because I know how much she wanted it. And I wanted it for her. So being able to compete a beam routine that I had seen in practice for the first time in a long time under so much pressure, was just a reward and a thing that, I mean, it was one of the best medals she's won of those worlds just because she felt OK and back, like I feel good again.
OC: You have been back in the gym now about two-and-a-half weeks [after coronavirus lockdown stay-at-home orders]. How has that been going?
CL: The elites were off for a little bit over seven weeks, and so we came back a two and half weeks ago, only three hours a day the first two weeks, training early in the morning. That way the gym was empty and it was easier for everybody to keep social distance. It's been mostly a lot of basics, conditioning, but more specific conditioning because they did do a lot of conditioning during quarantine at home. But there's some stuff you can't do, so some rope climbs and some bars basics and beam basics and all that.
This week, they're starting getting their skills back and having a little bit more fun at the gym. We are up to four hours now per day. So we do 7-11 and have the rest of the day to kind of relax. It's their first summer that they're going to have with no competition, so we thought, it's a good time for them to relax and enjoy and make sure they are not overwhelmed.
CL: They have another 14 months that we need to make sure mentally they're prepared, and we'll have enough time to get ready. Slowly throughout the summer, we're going to increase a little bit, but not like we used to. There's no point this year.
You have to take the positive - Landi on Olympic postponement
OC: From a mental perspective, Olympic postponement poses a big challenge, but do you see any upsides to letting these athletes have a chance to heal their bodies a bit?
CL: I mean, some of the girls who were feeling a little bit tired and injured, for sure, they'll come back, physically much better. Some were ready to be also done in a couple months, so I think it depends. I think having this summer to listen to them and to have a little bit more fun at the gym and relaxing a bit, and I think it's good. They've never had that kind of year. Maybe when they were Junior Olympic kids. But how long has it been? It's been quite a few for most of them. So, I think it's a silver lining. You have to take the positive when something so major happens. It's beyond gymnastics. We had to do what we had to do and just step back and, even for us, relax. The girls, they're like, man, you're tan! I tell them, I've been outside. I know I'm usually always inside. We were riding bikes and fishing and all that stuff that we don't necessarily take the time to do because we're tired.
OC: What was was happening in those seven weeks off, especially, what kind of the conversations you were having with Simone? She has, of course, come out and said it was really - and it probably still is - a tough time for her.
CL: I think for all of us, the first two weeks were really the hardest ones. We had no idea what was going to happen, we couldn't see the end of the tunnel. We didn't know how big this was. We are in our gymnastics bubble. We train, train, train. And finally, something like smacks you in the face. And you like, 'Oh, oh, there's something else in gymnastics. What is happening?'
So the first two weeks were difficult, not knowing how long we're going to be out and how we're going to train. We had just found out the Olympic Games were postponed, so mentally, physically, everything just went down. It was difficult to find a rhythm. It was difficult to get out of bed for them, for us. Everybody. The first two weeks were awful.
CL: Throughout the first two weeks we texted, we had a couple FaceTimes. She was like, 'I can't do it.' I said, 'Yes, you can. I know, as of right now, you can't. I understand that. Like, it's just a big slap in the face, but you'll be OK. And if truly you feel you can't, then you can't. You have nothing to prove anymore. You are the best athlete. If you really can't, you can't, but Laurent and I believe you are stronger than you think and you just need some time. So, try to enjoy that time off.'
And she did. She just relaxed, went with some friends, Zoom stuff. She had a roommate with her.
She makes jokes like, 'Oh my God, how am I going to survive another 14 months?' But I know deep inside she's like, 'I have to do this'.
OC: What do you see your role as her coach to help her kind of reframe the plan, physically and the training, for the next 14 months?
CL: I mean, Laurent is the big planner. So once we do have all those dates and all that, we'll sit down again and do the big calendar and see. In that trio, I listen to both of them and I try to compromise to both of them, making sure he kind of gets what he wants and she gets what she wants and everybody feels good. So that's my role. As soon as she feels heard like anyone, she feels better already. It's a big weight off your shoulders and you can move on with your day. I think that's what she does with me. She tells me how she feels, truly feels.
OC: She's sort of talked about how she's "old" - that's old in air quotes. But for people who might only see Simone on TV, who see her, two, three times a year, it just looks so easy all the time. What what physical pressures, physical concerns do you think there are facing her? Or do you think that's sort of like you said, a joke that she kind of makes because that's just her personality?
CL: I think that's in her mind. She's been told for many years and everyone has been told that twenty three, you're old. I think it's mental because physically she looks great. She'll tell you she hurts, but honestly, when you see what she's doing, I'm like, 'How can you be hurting and do what you do?'
And all the time, she's laughing and chit-chatting and all that stuff. So, you know, we make sure obviously the numbers are pretty low and utilise the trampoline, soft landing and a lot of physical therapy, making sure her ankles and shoulders rehab and all that stuff is done properly daily.
Other than that, I think it's mental. She likes to tell herself, I'm old. I can't do this. But then, she's fine. She told me she needed a hot tub because it will be necessary this year for her old body to get in a hot tub on a daily basis. I'm like, 'All right. Go get a hot tub.' I don't know... If that helps. (Laughs).
But physically, she looks great. And I think most of it, she feels great. It's just some aches and pains, but there's nothing really major and she knows how to take care of her body.
CL: She's a woman now, and I think it becomes actually easier around 16, that's when your body's changing and it's very hard to figure out what you can and cannot do. You're growing, your hormones are going crazy. At the same time, you got to improve your gymnastics. It's very difficult. I think it's a little bit easier at her age now.
I think four years ago, if the Olympics had been postponed, I don't know how she would have handled it. She's so much more mature now and physically in great shape that she can.
OC: How do you help her on the mental side of it? Because I know she's said, 'Laurent's got these crazy plans for me, he wants me do the triple double, and it's never gonna happen.' And then, of course, a few weeks later, there she is doing it. So how do you both help her kind of get past that block?
CL: I think we just play with her. You know, go throw it in the pit first and, okay, fine. You're old, you can't do it and I think that gets in her head, and she's like, wait, hold on, I'll show you I can do it. She feels in charge, and then she does it. But at first, it's kind of joking around in, putting into the pit. And once she tries it the first time she's actually, like, it wasn't that bad so I can do a little bit more. We'll see if anything else happens now that we have an extra year.
OC: I'm sure Laurent has some ideas in mind.
CL: I'm sure he does... but he hasn't shared them yet.
OC: Something that has always impressed me about Simone - even more than her amazing physical feats - is that despite not having had an easy life, she has always refused to use any of it as an excuse. Why do you think that is?
CL: Her parents. Her parents have never made her feel like she had had it hard in any way, never made an excuse. They have high standards. I think even higher than anyone else in her family, for her. They treat her like her brother and sister, but even, I would say, they're more strict with her. They expect a lot from her, and it's been like that since she was little.
Being adopted by her grandparents has been the best thing that ever happened to her and Adria. She knows that. But sometimes we do talk about the past, and it's... I can't believe how well mentally she is with what she's been through.
So many people would have crumbled and used it as an excuse - and rightfully so. It's been so tough, but no, she uses it, like, 'OK, I'm going to I'm going to do better.'
And she wants to help. She's really involved in the foster care with all her sponsors and trying to give back. She knows how lucky she was. I think it made her a lot stronger than anyone else. That's why she's is more mature, too. She had to grow up a lot faster than others.
OC: Does seeing that inspire you in your life?
CL: I mean, your problems on a daily basis just seem a little bit small. You're like, 'OK, no. I'll be OK and it's not a big deal. There are way bigger problems in life than... I don't even know what I can think of right now.'
But, you know, Laurent is very impatient and sometimes, I'm like, hey, there's a bigger problems in life than you can't golf today. I mean, come on. You're gonna be fine. It's little things like this that puts life in perspective and making sure we have the priorities right, and especially now with a pandemic. I think everybody had to back off and be like, OK, and also this week and last week, with everything that is happening, it's even more so like, OK, we are very blessed, very lucky, and we gotta do what we can to help others.
OC: You haven't been shy about talking about USA Gymnastics and all the changes that need to happen in this country in gymnastics. Where do you think the sport is now in this country? And what else are you hoping to see change?
CL: I think we're going in the right direction. I want to trust [the current CEO of USA Gymnastics] and I want to believe that she has the best interests at heart, and I think she does. What we like is she was an athlete herself, an elite gymnast and NCAA gymnast.
She has experienced it, and you can only really understand what it takes to do what they're doing when you've done it. I think it's important that the girls and the coaches feel like they can talk to someone.
But there's more to be done. I think little-by-little, it's happening. Not everything can be changed overnight. I think we need to be patient. I see it on social media sometimes, like, 'Oh, look what they did now.' OK, calm down. They're doing a lot of things. We only saw the tip of the iceberg, I'm sure. There's so many more things to be changed from bottom up and little-by-little, it is happening.
So just be patient and if you see something wrong, then speak up. But let them do their job, and they should let us do ours. But don't be afraid to speak up if this is something that's wrong. That's really all, and be patient. You can't change an organisation overnight especially with what the other one did before. There's no way.
OC: As you said earlier, it's been at a time when it's been important to stand up and talk about what you believe them. That's something that you obviously are doing. Simone has done that for the last several years, as well. How important do you feel it is to use the platform you have or that Simone has to speak up about their truth, whatever it may be, whether it's about sexual abuse or about the Black Lives Matter movement?
CL: I think it's important. You feel like you're part of something and you want to change it. It's easy to complain behind the TV and just sit on the couch and do nothing. I know it's also easy to post and repost something on social media. But what you do on a daily basis is what's important.
I was looking today and a third of our group at the gym are Black Americans, and I want to make sure they know that as a white person, I may not understand everything they're going through, but I do want to.
CL: I want to help and I want to speak up for them. I have done that before. I've heard stuff, common from other athletes that were completely out of place and I've spoken up before. I'm not afraid to do so.
I want to understand, but as a white person, I do have privilege and I see it. I see it. I've never been treated badly. But I've seen it. My best friend is Elvire Teza, and she's black. We've had comments when we were younger when I was with her, so I know it's real. It's sad that in 2020, it's still happening.
The videos that we see weekly are just so disturbing. It's unbelievable that nothing is being done by the government. It takes the people to do what the government is supposed to be doing.
Without the protests this week, I'm not sure those four police officers would be arrested. It would have been dragged under the rug, like so many others. That is beyond sad.
I saw the video, and I talked to Simone about it and like, she said, 'I can't make myself to watch it all. I can't do it'. I said, 'I watched it for the very first time this week, the entire thing. I don't understand how you can live with yourself watching it and doing nothing.'
OC: Switching gears as we wrap up. How do you think you and Laurent having been a high level athletes yourselves has shaped the way you coach?
CL: I think because we can relate to them, the athletes have more trust in what we're feeling, what we're doing. Sometimes they do something and they look to you and say, 'did you do that skill?' I'm like, 'Yeah. Did it hurt? Oh, I remember.' So ,there's I trust in it.
We can talk about past. I was coached in the 90s, and we all know how the coaches were at the time, so it was very different. I just want to make sure the girls know that I'm here for them. It's not about me. I had my career.
I did what I wanted to do. I achieved everything I wanted to achieve as an athlete. Now, as a coach, I just want to make sure that whatever my gymnasts' goals are, I will do my best to help them achieve them. It's all about them. It's not about me, put them first. What can I do to help them?
When somebody can't get something, it's not the athlete's fault. You have to find a way to help them. You go change your technique a little. You have your perfect technique in your head, but it's obviously not working for the gymnast. So what can you do? What can you say? How can you make her understand what she needs to be doing to be able to succeed? That's what's important.
It's not about me, put them first. What can I do to help them? - Landi on coaching philosophy
Now, they all have different goals. We have a team right now of 26 that work with Laurent and me, that includes the elites that we mesh all together. I think that this is good, but they have different goals. Some just want to be the best they can be, whatever it is; some want to go to college; some want to make the national team; some want to go to the Olympic Games.
It's just for us to be able to push them to be there, to pick them up when they struggle and make sure they they know that we truly have their backs and trying our best to be there for them no matter what.
OC: My last question, along a similar line, how do you feel like your athletic accomplishments compare to the achievements you've had as a coach?
CL: I've never cried for my own results ever. I've been very proud of what I did. But I am so much more happy when I see one of my athletes hitting a skill or getting a medal or getting a scholarship or being on top of the world. This makes me so happy and just OK, I did what I was brought to do in the background.
I want them to truly, truly feel good and remember this feeling for the rest of their life: that when they struggle, they remember that there's good and hard work pays off no matter what.
As a coach, it's harder mentally than as an athlete because you have so many more athletes that you have to worry about. But the reward - and not necessarily winning a gold medal - is just seeing the pride that they can have, the joy is just that feeling. I love seeing that. I'm just excited and happy when they do a skill and their eyes are like, did you see that? Like how good was that.
That makes me happy, way happier than when I did something because it was me. You know, it was just about me then and this is about them now.
OC: Well, I certainly think that all comes through. Thank you. Thanks so much for your time.