Liang Chow is the smiling Asian man that the world saw encouraging and hugging Gabby Douglas through four glorious routines that added up to a gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around competition on the first Thursday of the London Olympics.
Especially heartwarming about the pre- and post-routine closeups of the 16-year-old African American and her Chinese American coach was the way his warm, relaxed smile became reflected and amplified on her beaming young face. The image was all the more memorable because it contrasted with the tense, abstracted and, at times, distressed looks on the faces of Viktoria Komova, Aliya Mustafina and Aly Raisman who were contending for the all-around medals.
The whole world couldn’t help wondering what magical incantations Chow was murmuring to his young charge during those smiling pre-routine tête-à-têtes.
“I remember Chow telling me just stay calm, remain focused and the results will come up by themselves,” Douglas revealed after her gold medal win.
She isn’t the only Olympic gold medalist on whom Chow has worked his coaching magic. Shawn Johnson, who emerged as one of the golden girls of the 2008 Beijing Olympics with both gold and silver medals, is another. Johnson had been personally coached by Chow since she was six.
“By the time I was 12, 13, we had started thinking about the Olympics and figured out that I would turn 16 the year I would turn age-eligible in the Olympics that would be in his home town,” Johnson recalled. “That was the first time he had ever been back home. It meant more for me that I was making him proud and making his country proud, showing them that he was still the successful person he was when he left.”
The success Chow has had with Douglas and Johnson — as well as with many other youngsters who train at the Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in West Des Moines, Iowa — owes partly to his own career as a champion gymnast in China. The other part is his drive to use gymnastics coaching to impart the life-lessons he learned from his own gymnastics training.
“The sport made me who I am as a person,” Chow says, speaking his second language with the calm, controlled tone one suspects he uses to impart something of his own unflappable quality to his students. “So I really wanted to pass on my knowledge as a coach and also I want my athletes to get the life-learning gymnastics skills for real life.”
Liang Chow was born on January 1, 1968 in Beijing, China. He began gymnastics training at the age of five. He was only 10 when he became China’s national junior champion. He spent the next decade winning various national and international titles.
In 1990, about two years after he retired from gymnastics, Chow came to the US on a scholarship from the University of Iowa that would allow him to learn English in exchange for coaching.
“He said he was very humbled coming to the US from China, going from celebrity to just a University of Iowa college student,” recalls Shawn Johnson. “He had to work even to earn enough money to buy lunch. That was never an issue in China. He probably doubted his opportunity and chance to ever train someone but when he did I think he had the confidence in it.”
In 1998 Chow moved to West Des Moines with his wife Liwen Zhuang and opened Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute.
“My wife and I wanted to open up our own gym to bring up fresh talent,” Chow says. “After about a month or two Shawn and her mom showed up in front of our door. She was six years old when I first met her. I said, ‘What is your goal for gymnastics?’ She said, ‘I want to be in the Olympics,’ — just like all the other kids.”
“He moved here the year I was born,” says Johnson. “About six years later he moved to my home town and opened his own gym. His gym was in this garage. We didn’t have AC. We didn’t have heat. We had these giant fans and garage doors that we would open in the summer.”
By 2004 Chow’s coaching helped Johnson finish first on the balance beam at the Junior Olympics (U.S. Level 10) National Championships. She also finished second on the floor and fourth in the all-around.
Despite her successes Johnson wasn’t scouted by USA Gymnastics (USAG), the sole governing body of gymnastics competitions in the US. By 2005 Chow was eager to call the USAG’s attention to his promising young student. He sent National Team Coordinator Marta Karolyi a video of Johnson.
“I believe this kid will help the US team,” Chow wrote in the accompanying letter.
“Wow, this coach is pretty confident,” Karolyi recalled of her reaction to Chows message. But she apparently liked what she saw because Johnson was soon invited to join the national team at various training camps.
It didn’t take long for Johnson to make her mark in national and international competitions. She placed third at the 2005 US Classic. A fall off the balance beam on the first day of the 2005 US National Championships relegated her to tenth all-around. But that would be Johnson’s last major stumble on the road to the 2008 Beijing Games.
She won the 2006 U.S. Junior National All-Around Championship her score was higher than any of her senior elite competitors. As a senior she won gold in the all-around at the 2007 Tyson American Cup and won gold in four events at that year’s Pan American Games as well as the all-around at the National Championships. Remarkably, she finished more than five points ahead of two-time National Champion Nastia Liukin. At the 2007 Panamerican Games Johnson won gold in the team competition, the all-around, the balance beam and the uneven bars, with a silver on floor.
Johnson continued to shine at the 2007 World Championships where her teammates were Nastia Liukin, Shayla Worley, Alicia Sacramone, Ivana Hong and Samantha Peszek. Johnson was the only team members to perform all four events in the team finals and led the team to gold over China with 15.375 on bars and floor, and 15.150 on vault. A fall brought her beam score down to 15.025. She topped off her triumph by becoming only the fourth US woman to win all-around gold.
A series of other international golds followed, preparing Johnson for her Olympic debut. In Beijing she competed in all four events during the team competition in which the United States won silver. Johnson also won silver in the all-around behind teammate Nastia Liukin’s gold, then won silver ahead of Liukin’s bronze on floor. Johnson’s gold medal performance came on the balance beam, ahead of Liukin’s silver, capping off the friendly rivalry that was one of the top topics of the Beijing Games.
By the fall of 2010 Johnson’s gymnastics training was becoming hampered by a knee injury suffered in a skiiing accident that January. It was around that time that a 14-year-old named Gabrielle Douglas sought out Chow’s help. She had first met Chow at an instructional clinic to which he had been invited by Dena Walker, Douglas’s old coach who ran Excalibur Gym in Virginia Beach.
“He came to one of our camps at my old gym and taught me this two and a half [vault routine],” Douglas recalls. “I was like if he can teach me this two and a half in a matter of like two seconds I wonder what else he can teach me.
“I told my mom that I needed better coaching if I’m gonna head strong to the Olympics,” Douglas recalls. “She didn’t agree with me. So finally after months and months she finally agreed with me.”
But when Douglas’s mother Natalie Hawkins cleared Gabby’s locker out of Walker’s Excalibur Gym and moved her to live with a host family in West Des Moines in the fall of 2010, the Chinese American coach wasn’t sure he wanted to take on the challenge of transforming the scrawny kid with unpolished skills into an Olympic medal contender in less than 21 months.
“My first reaction was I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take her,” he recalls. “I know she’s a talented athlete but I told her mom I’m not sure if I can make it. They were only giving me less than two years to work with her. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I said, ‘I can give you my best shot, but I really don’t know how far I can push her through this.’”
But Douglas won Chow over with the sheer intensity of her effort to go with her exceptional power. And like Shawn Johnson, Douglas possessed an indomitable spirit that shown through in her radiant smiles. But he didn’t see Douglas as another Johnson.
“Every routine is different, the preparation, the issues are different on a daily basis, especially at this level because all individuals are different,” Chow says. “You have to work with their weakness to maximize their possibilities.”
“Coach Chow shaped me into a better and awesome gymnasts,” Douglas said, happy to acknowledge his role in her transformation into an Olympic-caliber gymnast. “His style is very unique; it’s quality over quantity. He would rather you do one or two perfects instead of like ten bad ones. Even his technique is different, his way of thinking.”
Douglas’s relatively late coaching change has raised questions, especially after her success in London. Her old coach Dena Walker has suggested that it may have been due to Hawkins’ effort to avoid paying the $20,000 in fees that Walker says is owed her. But she wants Gabby to do well and doesn’t want to raise the issue until after the Olympics.
“It’s kind of disheartening because I love the kid, I love Gabby to death,” Walker says. “Gabby would come home with us, she’d eat dinner with us. I never assumed she would leave. I never saw that coming.”
When she returned from a wedding in Maine one weekend, she found that Hawkins had cleaned out Douglas’ locker at Excalibur.
“That was our parting,” Walked recalls. “I never heard from Gabby. I know she left my daughter [Chase] a note in her locker saying she would always be one of her closest friends and would love her forever.”
Walker’s gym hasn’t produced any Olympians but it has produced 11 national team members and she believes Douglas would have done as well had she stayed with her.
Bela Karolyi, the legendary Romanian-born gymnastics coach whose wife Martha heads up the US national team, had said in June of Douglas’s move, “She needed better coaching, a proper instructor.”
In Chow Gabby Douglas has found the path to Olympic gold. And Chow himself has found with his role in shaping America’s new Olympic sweetheart a secure place in the gymnastics world as a legendary starmaker.