Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- Ivana Hong is only 14 years old yet is already fluent in three languages -- English, Chinese and Vietnamese -- and is rapidly learning Spanish.

Then again, what she heard while competing last month at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro was clear in any language.

Boos. Lots of them.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Hong said Wednesday after she finished training at the HP Pavilion in preparation to tonight’s start of the women’s competition at the U.S. senior gymnastics nationals, the Visa Championships. “People threw things. They booed our good stuff and cheered our mistakes.”


Still, the U.S. women won a team gold medal and swept gold, silver and bronze -- in order, Shawn Peterson, Rebecca Bross and Hong -- in the all-around competition.

Among medalists, there was no bigger revelation than Hong, the American-born daughter of Chinese parents.

“My daughter has a very special will,” Michelle Hong said. “She has taken some lumps but nothing puts her off.”

For example, Hong competed at an international meet in England last March with what turned out to be a broken knee cap.

Hong had twisted it in a pre-meet camp at the ranch of U.S. women’s coordinator Martha Karolyi.

“All Ivana told me was that she tweaked her knee,” her mother said. “It wasn’t until she came home, almost a month later, that she said, ‘Mom, my knee still hurts.’ We had X-rays and they found a broken bone.”

That kind of toughness runs in the family.

Michelle Hong and 24 members of her family fled Saigon in 1976 in what was their third traumatic attempt to escape. Michelle says she remembers bullets flying past their small boat headed to Thailand.

Her husband, Michael, had also lived in Vietnam, but they met after both had moved to the United States.

Ivana was born in Worcester, Mass., before the family -- there are older sisters Isabelle and Isadora and a younger brother, Preston -- moved to Laguna Hills in 1994.

Michelle said Ivana was 5 when she took her to a “Mommy and Me” gym class at the National Gymnastics Training Center in Aliso Viejo.

“I thought I could just leave her and go run errands,” Michelle said. “They told me I had to stay because 5-year-olds couldn’t pay attention. I asked them to let Ivana stay by herself just one day. If she wouldn’t behave, I wouldn’t leave her. When I came back they said, ‘Mrs. Hong, she can stay.’ ”

Ivana said she never felt clumsy or fearful on any of the apparatus. It is not an effort for her to point her toes and fingers. After about two years at the Aliso gym, Michelle noticed Ivana was coming home every day and singing songs.

“Where did you learn the songs?” Michelle asked. Ivana explained that while she was waiting in line to do gymnastics tricks the other girls would teach her songs.

“But I thought gymnastics class should be about gymnastics,” Michelle said, “not singing.”

So Ivana was taken to Gym-Max in Costa Mesa where Howie and Jennie Liang tutored potential national team members such as Jeanette Antolin.

While Michelle said Ivana got a good basis in fundamental skills, she and her husband weren’t happy with the structure and methods of training. In 2004, shortly after the Athens Olympics, Michelle and Ivana toured four other gyms -- Kelli Hill’s club near Baltimore; Capital Gymnastics in Burke, Va; World Olympics Gymnastics Academy in Plano, Texas; and Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) in Blue Springs, Mo.

“Too much traffic at the first two,” Michelle said.

“Too many bugs in Texas,” Ivana said.

That left GAGE, where the husband-wife team of Al Fong and Armine Barutyan run the gym.

In the fall of 2004, Michelle packed up her four children and moved to Missouri. “It was the hardest move,” Michelle said. “Harder to leave California and my husband for Missouri than when I left Vietnam with bullets flying.”

It is the story of many young athletes, figure skaters and gymnasts especially. Ivana says she understands what her family has done. “They have made it possible for me to be, maybe, an Olympian,” she said. She talks to her father every night and the family says home is Laguna Hills.

Hong was the youngest member of the Pan-Am Games gold-medal winning team, and she’s still not 5 feet tall nor 100 pounds.

But Karolyi says she has “unexpected power.”

“When she arrived in Missouri,” Fong said, “I honestly didn’t know what we have.

“What do we have? A girl that can truly be the best. She is something special. I’m convinced of that.”