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--- news (8/2/2012)
Olympics: Gabby Douglas finds coach Liang Chow at the right time

Gymnast, coach follow pairing with Johnson in 2008

LONDON — Liang Chow never made it to the Olympics as an athlete.

The promising Chinese gymnast was a little too young to make the team for Seoul 1988. By the time Barcelona 1992 arrived, he had injured his back, retired from competition and was living in Iowa City.

Yet few people have cast a larger shadow over the past two Summer Games than the unassuming man from West Des Moines by way of Beijing.

Chow, 44, has coached America’s brightest women’s gymnastics stars in back-to-back Olympiads — sunny Shawn Johnson in 2008 and garrulous Gabby Douglas this year in London.

He finally made it to the Games, he said, by emphasizing the fun.

“I’m here for the kids. I’m not here for them to achieve my ambitions. I feel like my athletic life is over,” Chow said. “They need to be enjoying themselves. And for this level, it’s not easy. They have to have the heart to.

“I found the joy out of that. There’s nothing better than to help your younger generations, your students, achieve their goals, achieve their dream.”

It was that attitude — and the connection Chow seemed to have with 2008 all-around silver medalist Johnson — that first appealed to Douglas, his 16-year-old protegé who will lead Team USA into the team finals today. Douglas, a Virginia native, said she was looking for a new coach two years ago, one that would elevate her skill level while forging a personal bond.

Johnson and Douglas both say Chow became a surrogate father to them, pushing them athletically without punishing them emotionally. He revels in their success, but doesn’t take the credit.

Indeed, after Douglas turned in a strong showing at U.S. nationals in St. Louis last month, Chow could be seen smiling proudly in front of the podium, one camera in each hand, deftly snapping pictures of his rising star. One set of pictures was for himself, the other for Douglas’s mother, Natalie Hawkins.

“I want to keep this moment. Since her mom could not be down here, I was closer. I’ll e-mail them to her mom,” Chow said.

U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas competes in balance beam during women's team qualification during the London 2012 Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena

Chow’s presence is low-key and soothing. He is quick with a smile and a pat on the back. Douglas, in turn, makes sure to meet his eyes after every training maneuver, nodding briskly while he delivers instruction.

Chow’s English has improved greatly since he arrived in Iowa City in 1991, lured by an aunt who was studying at the University of Iowa. But he is still prone to exaggerated body language when making a point, lifting his arms over his head and arching his back to show Douglas what went wrong, the way he was forced to teach when language was a barrier.

Whatever message he is delivering, it obviously has stuck. Johnson in 2008 and Douglas this year both won the all-around title at the Olympic Trials.

“I feel like I’ve made so many changes. Coach Chow, he’s prepared and shaped me up to be the gymnast I’m supposed to be,” Douglas said of her 21 months of training at Chow’s Gymnastics in West Des Moines.“He’s taken me so far, and I just want to reward him and just say thanks. I never would be the person or the gymnast I am today. Everybody tells me that I’m a new person, I’m a new Gabby, and it just makes me feel so good.”

Chow, along with his wife Liwen Zhuang, another former Chinese national gymnast, opened his own gym in his new state in 1998, after serving as an assistant coach for the Hawkeyes. The goal was to reach budding gymnasts at an earlier age, when they were more malleable.

One of the first little girls to walk through the doors was Johnson, a convergence that produced one of America’s great gymnastics careers. Johnson was world all-around champion in 2007, and captured one gold and three silver medals in Beijing.

Chow was there every step of the way for Johnson’s competitive career.

But Douglas arrived at age 14, brimming with talent but burdened by a reputation for folding under pressure.

Chow said it took time for coach and gymnast to learn about each other. He had to discover the right way to motivate Douglas, to teach her that world-class gymnastics isn’t merely a matter of technique, but rather letting others feel your joy as you compete.

“I think she is a very loving kid and has a big heart. She wants to please you as your student,” he said. “But I don’t want to give her too much pressure. ‘You have to do this.’ I want her to feel like she’s doing the gymnastics every day and putting the hard work in. She’s doing it for herself. She’s doing it because she’s loving it.”

Whatever they’ve discovered, it seems to be a winning combination. Douglas posted the third-highest scores of any gymnast in Sunday’s qualification rounds, putting her in the running for individual all-around gold Thursday. She also will compete in the finals for uneven bars and balance beam, meaning she has a chance to match Johnson with four Olympic medals here.

Chow was so excited about Douglas’s performance that he could be seen leaping into the air, running toward the North Greenwich Arena tunnel, pumping one fist. It was quite a departure for the normally laid-back coach.

Asked about this new hyperkinetic Chow, he at first joked that it must have been something in the food at the Olympic Village.

“You’re trying to help her to achieve her dreams, her ambitions,” he finally explained. “Every routine, we’re just one step closer. So the joy is out of my heart.”
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