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Chinese-Born Coach Leads US Gymnasts to Olympic Success


Gymnastics is a strength for China, and as the Olympic host this year, it is no surprise that the Asian giant has had big results in Beijing. As VOA's Jim Stevenson reports from the games, U.S. gymnasts also found their way to the medal podium, in large part, because of a Chinese-born coach.

Liang Chow grew up in Beijing. He was a member of the Chinese bronze medal-winning team at the 1989 World Championships. Chow's skill and talents made him well known and relatively wealthy in China. But two years later, the 23-year-old Chow accepted a scholarship to the University of Iowa, where he would study English and help coach the gymnastics teams.

Chow brought with him a simple philosophy for success.

"For this high level of gymnastics, you can not get to this level without hard work, no matter what kind of system you are in," he says.

Chow had dreams of opening a school to teach gymnastics skills to young children. His school ended up in West Des Moines, Iowa. Just a few blocks away lived six-year-old Shawn Johnson. She went to Chow's school, and began her path to the Olympics.

Chow says it is that kind of grass roots development that makes the United States approach to world class gymnastics different from China.

"For America, we have more recreational members, which is easier for the coaches to select the talented ones," he explains. "I think China is more focused on the high level ones. But here [in China], we do not have that many lower recreational kids."

Chow did not teach Johnson to be an adversary of her Chinese rivals. Instead, he used many Chinese teaching methods to help Johnson compete better on the international stage. And that has helped to put her at ease with Chinese gymnasts.

"I am very good friends with the Chinese team. And I think that has to do a lot with Chow," Johnson says. "We have just always had a great relationship. And of course there is the communication barrier. But you can tell through body language and through the few words that we do know that we care about each other. And we want the best for each other."

And Chow got the best out of his team at the Beijing Olympics.

"We had eight medals for women's gymnastics here. And the sport is very international. It does not belong to one nation. I feel great about our accomplishment," he says.

One of those accomplishments included Shawn Johnson's gold medal from the balance beam.