AOTM02:A Leading Figure in Swiss Wushu- Sami Ben Mahmoud

Competing in seven World Wushu Championships is a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself, and Swiss athlete Sami Ben Mahmoud is not stopping there – he’s looking forward to his 8th WWC this fall in Fort Worth, Texas. Since 2007, he is the most successful Swiss taolu athlete to date, winning serial gold medals at his national championships, becoming a European champion, and competing at two Taolu World Cup championship events. On top of this, he has also worked tirelessly to build and promote the sport of wushu throughout Switzerland, beginning as an athlete representative in the Swiss Wushu Federation, and finally taking a leading role as its current President. When it comes to his sport, Sami is all in – after making the pivotal decision to fully dedicate his life to wushu, he opened a flourishing wushu school where he continues to train the next generation of Swiss wushu athletes and enthusiasts. And he is still only 37 years old. As one of the most experienced athletes and sport leaders in Switzerland, Sami’s energy, vision and consistent hard work continue to put the tiny country of Switzerland brightly on the wushu map.

Wushu Beginnings

When Sami was a kid growing up in Switzerland it was Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan who introduced him to wushu fighting on the silver screen. But when he was 11, because he was being bullied at school, his father decided Sami should do some real martial arts. He started training in Wing Chun with the goal of learning how to defend himself. As for competitive sports he wanted to play soccer like all the other kids. But at the age of 16 Sami discovered modern wushu through another club and says, “I immediately fell in love with it. I joined the club’s competition team quickly and had my first Swiss Wushu competition in 2004. At that time the Swiss Wushu Federation was not yet part of the NOC (Swiss Olympics) and the scene was very small. There were almost no kids, and competitions were mostly juniors and adults.”


At first Sami started to learn changquan and daoshu but later changed to the southern styles – for practical reasons. “I wanted to attend my first Swiss Wushu competition,” he remembers, “and I couldn’t do a split, which was required in 2nd set changquan. My teacher said then: ‘No split, no competition.’ So I changed to nanquan and at first I did not like it at all! Screaming everywhere and running wild like a tiger – that was not me! Anyway – after a while I really found joy in screaming and running like a tiger.”


The next five years were filled with various trainings that all added up to a valuable learning experience. “I started with modern wushu in a phase where the international scene was transforming from compulsory routines to optional routines,” Sami recalls. “As an athlete I wanted to learn the optional routines very fast and be able to do all these crazy jumps. Which later turned out to be a mistake. Many teachers in Switzerland at that time told me to first practice the basics properly but I just wanted to be like the best and do what they do without having the same foundation as they had. I had to find out things by myself and tried to join training camps from other schools as much as I could. Success came once I started to train with a structured plan and build my foundations.”


Putting a Small Country on the Wushu Map


Sami’s first big international success was winning the 8th place in the World Wushu Championships 2009 in Canada. But this success only came after a hard learned lesson at his first World Wushu Championships experience in 2007 in Beijing. “I remember this competition very clearly,” Sami says, “as it was my worst as well. I turned in all my events in last place, or at least ranked at the very end, even though I was training for it for 6 months in Shanghai. Well — that was an illusion and it opened my eyes very quickly – success doesn’t come after 6 months in China. It came when I continued consistent training methods for more than 2 years. Then I was able to rank 8th at the Toronto WWC.”


“I went many times to China to prepare for bigger competitions,” Sami tells us. “In total I spent about 2 years in China (every year 3-6 months). I love the trainings there but I had to learn as well to adapt their training to my own back home. Having a regular job, school, family you simply can’t train the same amount of hours like a Chinese professional athlete. Besides that my body may not be prepared for such training. As an athlete the best is when consistent, hard work pays off. One thing that pushes me a lot — more than the results itself — is when officials such as judges, coaches from other countries or even my rivals talk with me about my improvement. That is like a fuel of turbo-wushu-gasoline for the next 2 years.”

“Every World Championships is very special, “says Sami, “and it always gave me the energy to keep going and improve myself. I have attended 7 World Championships and will hopefully attend the World Championships in USA in 2023 as well. After so many years I have gotten to know so many people and I’m still in close contact with them.” Another reward from his hard work at the WWC was placing high enough to qualify for the Taolu World Cup. “First of all,” he recalls, “it was wonderful and crazy for me to compete in both Taolu World Cups where only the top 8 of the world taolu athletes can participate. Participating there is for me already a gold medal. My goal was to perform my best and make no mistakes – in some events I did reach that goal.”


National and Continental Wushu Scene


Closer to home, the world of national and European continental wushu competitions offered consistent training and community. Over the years in the Swiss National wushu competition Sami became the serial winner in the events he competed in. He recalls, “Everyone was like ‘ahh ok Sami will win this event anyway’ – but what many do not know is that this has put a lot of pressure on me. Because everyone is expecting you to win, right? The pressure on the national level is sometimes more than on a world championship, even though this might sound crazy.” Sami adds, “Competing now in Switzerland is even more challenging as I’m covering many roles — athlete, coach, tournament director, president, social media guy. So it happens that sometimes I’m warming up myself to compete in 15 minutes and then I need to run somewhere else to fix an organizational issue.”


Being part of the European wushu community has brought its own special rewards. Sami notes, “The European Wushu Championships are, like the World Championships, always very special. I get to meet a lot of friends again and again, and compete against them as well. As we all get older life changes. So it’s very special to me when I’ve known athletes for a dozen years or more, and now we’ve got family, kids, our own wushu school and work inside our federations.”


Growing the Sport of Wushu in Switzerland – The Next Generation


“My ambitions as an athlete,” says Sami, “were to do everything needed to be better than last time. With time and age it gets more difficult. The younger generation is much stronger and it’s hard to keep up with them. Now my goal as an athlete is to inspire the next Swiss generation of wushu athletes.”

To truly lead the next generation he decided he needed to step up. Sami is now the President of the Swiss Wushu Federation, and has been working even harder to promote wushu in Switzerland since he was elected in 2017. “Once we got accepted by the NOC, in 2008, the Swiss Wushu board had to have an athlete representative. As a young athlete I just wanted to support the development. So I was then elected in the board as an athlete representative and that’s how I got involved in the federation. Then I became responsible for modern taolu within the Swiss Wushu Executive Board, and got more experience. When the previous president stepped down, there were few who really wanted his job. As a president you need to deal with a lot of topics and whatever you do there will be always people who are not happy – I didn’t want that. Especially when I was still an active athlete, and working outside full-time as an IT-team leader, and building up my own wushu school. But I somehow said to myself — let’s try, maybe I can help the next generation of athletes, coaches and wushu schools. According to the feedback from many people things have changed positively, which makes me happy of course.”


Challenges and Successes


Being a first-time president of a sport federation is a daunting job, with many challenges. It also forced Sami to more deeply assess how long to pursue his career as an athlete and how to balance this with his role and responsibility as a sport leader. He discovered new challenges in keeping Swiss wushu robust. “The hardest challenge for me,” says Sami, “is to travel the road of an athlete after his competition career. Many athletes in Switzerland retire from wushu completely when they leave the national team. We could use their knowledge as a judge, coach or any other work within the federation. At some time the “real life” comes, and they simply need to work so they can build their life, or study in a university, and I understand that. However I believe that it’s the comfortable situation of the young generation as well. They want everything and commitment is really difficult. It’s a hard challenge but I’m trying to involve them wherever I can. Being very close to all athletes it gives me a clear advantage in connection.”


Sami reflects on the challenges of the Swiss Wushu Federation and promoting wushu in Switzerland, but he also notes that recent success bringing national competitions to the next level are deeply encouraging. “Our national competitions were always a one-day competition,” he says, “over by 5pm. In 2022 we had to start from 8am and finish at 7pm even though we optimized many processes to the maximum – this was mainly due to the high amount of additional athletes. To me this is the biggest success. It means that new athletes are coming and enjoying it. Especially in the ages between 9 and 15 we had a big increase of competitors.”


Sami continues, “In June 2023 I will host the first 2-day competition which will be an Open competition – we will welcome all athletes from all countries. (See )

Another success was the first ever “Kids Cup” which is a fun tournament for kids where everyone is a winner. And we are actively promoting other disciplines such as sanda and qingda.”


Professional development is an area Sami takes seriously for developing Swiss wushu. “I’m the national team coach from Switzerland,” he says, “and joined a Swiss state-run training program to become a certified ‘Professional Coach in Competitive Sports’ which involves a lot of evidence-based training. With that I want to improve my knowledge, make sure I’m aware of the current science and methods and ultimately be able to support the athletes better than ever. Hopefully I can support other coaches as well, as I think that this an area some coaches do not pay enough attention to. I’m always looking for areas of where we can improve and there are many areas left!”


All In — The Wushu Life


In 2015 Sami decided to open his own school and founded the “WU-Academy of Martial Arts.” “At that time,” he recalls, “I was still working as an IT-team leader for the Swiss government, and I did that until 2019. I started teaching with 4 students and I’ve got now almost 350 students from 2 – 65 years, in two different cities, Zug and Zurich. The beginning was really hard. I tried to get wushu publicized by performing on stage everywhere I could. Whether it was for free or not – I didn’t really care. It took me about 2 -3 years until and I had full classes. When my son was born in 2018 I was really struggling with myself about my future. Should I quit my school and have a secure job or go all in? I decided to quit my IT job and focus everything on my wushu school. I could write a book about this — but the main question which made me decide this way was: will I ever regret it, if I do not try it? Yes, I will!”

“At the school,” Sami continues, “I had to learn to create different products out of wushu. One suitable for kids, one for serious competitors, and one for people who just look to wushu for fun, which does not mean that they have no goal. I can’t just open a school and teach all professional competitors. It took me some time to find the right balance and approach, and I think I get it now.”


Challenges remain. “Creating a new wushu school is a very tough job,” notes Sami, “and needs a lot of energy. Not everyone is willing to put that much effort in to it, which is a problem I see for the future. The Swiss Wushu Federation has got now about 50 wushu clubs as members and there are many more to come who are not members yet. However, there are no new wushu schools being opened by the younger generation, and this might be an issue in 20 years or so.”


Wushu Philosophy


Despite having had a wushu career of more than two decades, Sami is still active in competition as an athlete, as well as being the Swiss national team coach. He reflects philosophically, “I do not think that I can achieve more in competition now than I already have done, to be honest. I think I can keep my level and with a lot of luck (and work) I can achieve something here and there on an international level. My main drive now is to inspire the next generation. Once the next Swiss athlete is “ready” on that level, then I will step back and drink some tea. However, my fire is still burning and until it burns out, I do not see a reason to stop. Of course my body and health has to be able to handle it as well.  But as long as it does, then I will enjoy the adrenalin, the preparation for big competitions, and the friends I meet and compete with.”


“After so many competitions, I’m lucky to say that I know really everyone from the wushu family,” says Sami. “Social media helps a lot to keep the contact and to support each other when preparing for bigger events. Even with athletes from China, mainly Shanghai, I’m still chatting on them on WeChat.”


On Being a Coach — Working with Athletes


Of the many hats he wears, Sami is also the national coach of the Swiss wushu team, overseeing qualifying competitions and traveling to events. “Coaching the Swiss Wushu team is special in many ways,” he says. “First of all, I may be the national team coach but I only coach them once a month. The regular training — and most of the training — is done with their own coach from their wushu school. So my role when I travel with them is to make sure they can bring up their best selves when they compete. To do so, I try to get to know their character. What drives them? What motivates them? Every athlete is different. Some you need to handle with care and some need a push. I’m not the kind of coach that tries to improve their wushu on the competition – that should be done way before!”

“As I’m still an athlete competing,” Sami continues, “it’s sometimes challenging to put my personal feelings as an athlete aside and focus on them, but I think I can handle that very well now. I always try to add some fun with the team but when it’s needed I want them 100% focused.”


On Wushu, Family, Challenges, and the Future


Sami is both philosophical and realistic about challenges that remain for wushu in Switzerland. “I’m living in a country which is famous for its chocolate and cheese. Which I like by the way! It’s famous as well for its financial stability and Roger Federer. However, sport is not everything here and it has not got the same value as in other countries. So when you want to compete in wushu on a world stage, you have to be aware that there’s not as much support compared to other sports.


Sami’s commitment to family is something continually in his thoughts and decisions around his wushu career. “I had to learn not to only plan my wushu life but also to plan my family time. When having a regular job and building up your own school, and training, there’s not much time left for others, not to mention the time for myself to recharge. I have a wonderful wife who supports me a lot. She used to practice wushu as well and we are both now working as coaches. While she teaches fitness-boxing and yoga, I cover the wushu part. My son who is 4 years old now started with wushu as well. So the family support is big.”

He continues, “Being now 37 years old and having a family raises a few questions about the future. Of course I’m thinking about my retirement as an athlete — I may cry like Roger Federer though — but that’s the smallest challenge here. Where is my school in 5 years? Where is wushu in Switzerland in 5 years? What can I push to reach that?”

“Wushu has changed my life completely,” Sami says. “It’s not just the sport itself but also all the people I get to know. They shaped my character and had a big and positive impact on my development in all areas. The sport has made me travel the world and see places I would never visit otherwise.”

“As an athlete I hope that I will be remembered as someone who made his way up with consistent work and a strong mind. Besides that I want to be remembered simply as good person – that’s really all. As a coach I want to be remembered as someone who put the athlete and his needs in focus and not my own. I want to be remembered as someone who motivated them, pushes them but at the same time tells them the truth and reality if needed.”

“As a president I want to be remembered as someone who does more than he talks. I feel thankful to everyone who followed my journey and was or is still part of it. I would like to motivate and encourage the younger generation, encourage still-active athletes, and inspire retired athletes to continue the development of wushu in any area they can contribute too.”

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