Nearly 15 years after retiring, ‘Coach Wags’ keeps training Shawnee Mission student-athletes

Gymnasts honored “Coach Wags” at the SM North-hosted gymnastics meet in September. Photo credit Andrew Poland.

When someone is inducted into a hall of fame, that typically means he or she is either retired or long gone.

But Bernadette Wagner, a gymnastics and track coach in the Shawnee Mission School District, is neither of those things. Ten years have passed since Shawnee Mission North High School inducted her into the school’s hall of fame for her years of service and pioneering as a female coach in track and field.

And yet “Coach Wags,” as she is known, is still coaching young athletes with the same fervor she has exhibited when she started in 1973.

Wagner officially retired from teaching physical education and coaching both gymnastics and track and field at Shawnee Mission North in 2004. But after taking time off to care for her father who was ill, she returned full swing in 2006 as assistant coach for her former student Jennie Terflinger, now head coach of gymnastics for SM South and SM East.

“I was busy, but I wasn’t very happy,” Wagner said, joking that she gained weight and grew bored during her brief stint in retirement.

Terflinger and Wagner make a good team. Terflinger focuses on training for power and strength, while Wagner focuses on form and grace. But both see their role as that of mentorship and character-building for their student-athletes.

“I have always thought: I should do this,” Wagner said. “You can only retire once. I still enjoy working with kids, and this age especially because they can show you mean spirit…We try real hard to not just make an athlete. We try real hard to make young ladies that are going to be able to face difficulties in the world.”

Even though Wagner is now assistant coach, Terflinger doesn’t see the hierarchy because she’s one of her former student-athletes in gymnastics and track and field at Shawnee Mission North.

“My whole life has been just a path that she’s created,” Terflinger said of Wagner, who pushed her to pursue college on a pole vaulting scholarship and start her coaching career at Shawnee Mission West. “We’ve never been apart since; if you have me, you have her too. That’s how it will always be because I owe everything I have to her.”

A decades-long mentoring relationship

Terflinger and Wagner at work in the SM South gym.

When Wagner pushed Terflinger to pursue pole vaulting, there were still no state high school competitions for women in the 1990s. Under Wagner’s coaching, Terflinger became the first female student-athlete in Kansas to compete, at first against boys; she eventually won the first state championship against other girls in 2000.

Wagner pushed for athletics from her very first days at Shawnee Mission North, organizing and self-funding the school’s first-ever invite in 1974. And in 1978, she pushed for girls and boys to train together in track and field. She also coached diving and swimming as well as drill and dance/choreography.

“There’s not much at North that I did not do,” Wagner said.

Even more so, Wagner believes it’s possible that she was the first female coach to train pole vaulters in Kansas and even nationwide. She even coached Doug Lytle for the Olympics in 1984 and 1988.

“The first big meet that I went to, the Golden West, there were the top 16 senior vaulters in the United States, and I was the only woman at the meet,” Wagner said. “I would be the only woman at the vault, and I would be ignored, just like I told Jen she was going to be ignored. It’s a male-dominated sport, even now, but we’re getting more women involved, and it’s going to be good.”

Even now, 46 years after she started coaching, Wagner continues to pave the way for student-athletes in track and gymnastics to “be the best them that they can be going forward in life,” Terflinger said.

“She’s really fostered the way for so many kids, especially young women,” Terflinger said, “to be able to tell a young woman in high school, even though women are not competing: ‘You need to do this’ — that, in itself, to know that we can be strong enough and say it’s going to happen.

“She has such a legacy. (She’s) a legend for the Shawnee Mission School District.”