East Meets Midwest

Times Staff Writer

STUTTGART, Germany -- They make an unlikely combination, gymnastics coach Liang Chow and 15-year-old gymnast Shawn Johnson.

Chow grew up near Beijing and was formed into a world class gymnast by a rigid system that left a young boy with no way to express his personality except in his tumbling, his twisting and turning, his somersaults and back flips. With his eyes closed and when he was flying through the air, Chow was free. When he landed, Chow belonged to the national coaches.

Johnson is still growing up in West Des Moines, Iowa. Her father is a carpenter, her mother is a school system employee and Johnson is a gymnast because, before she was a year old, she was escaping from her crib and appearing in the laundry room, where her startled mother thought, “How did this happen?”


Johnson has a small tattoo of Chinese characters to honor her coach. That is a freedom Chow couldn’t have imagined ever having and it thrills him to see that freedom in his star pupil.

As the world gymnastics championships begin today, with the first day of women’s team qualifying, two of the seven U.S. women are coached by Chinese-born men and a third by a Chinese-American man. Besides Chow, Chinese-born Peter Zhao is the Indianapolis-based coach of Samantha Peszek and Al Fong is the Blue Springs, Mo.-based coach of 14-year-old Ivana Hong.

Fong was born in the United States and he is married to Hong’s co-coach, Armine Barutyan, who was born in Armenia.

“The perspective that has been brought to us by Liang and Peter, there’s no way of saying how important that is,” Fong said. “It is just a different way of approaching the sport, of seeing movements differently. It is also a bit of a different attitude.”

Chow was a member of the 1989 Chinese men’s national team. “That’s all you have to know about his talent,” Fong said. “If you’re good enough to make the Chinese team, you’re a great gymnast.”

Sixteen years ago Chow came to the University of Iowa to learn English. He got a job as an assistant coach as well and he had always nurtured a hidden desire to own his own gymnastics school.

“It wasn’t something I could maybe think about in China,” Chow said. “But it was a hope always.”

Chow doesn’t like to talk about himself. He will politely answer one or two questions about himself and then redirect the conversation. “It should be about my gymnast,” he says. “Not me.”

He gently deflected attempts to understand exactly how he made the decision to stay in the United States. “I liked it here,” he said. And, later, “I was able to do what I loved, to coach.”

As he learned English at Iowa, Chow said he also saved his money. He built his gymnastics school in West Des Moines, sometimes by hand.

Recalled Fong: “I went to visit Liang once. He was literally building the floor exercise platform. He was screwing the springs in by hand. I said, ‘Liang, haven’t you heard of power tools?’ He hadn’t.”

Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women’s team coordinator, says she recognizes little touches when she reviews the performances of a gymnast coached by Chow or Zhao.

“The toes are always pointed, the movements are always precise,” she said. “They are also very honest in their assessments of their gymnasts. They understand what is needed.”

So when Chow sent Karolyi a tape of Johnson three years ago and said, “This is a young gymnast that has some promise,” Karolyi paid attention.

“She was a little rough,” Karolyi said of Johnson, “but she was in the right hands.”

Johnson’s mother, Teri, said that from the first time she met Chow, there was a bond between the Midwestern family and the Chinese coach.

“I can’t explain it except that I knew we could trust him,” Teri said.

Fong says he has heard Chinese officials would love to have Chow coach for them. Chow said he had never heard such talk. “But I would prefer not to do that,” he said. “Now I have my own place and I can do things the way I need them to be done and without consulting anyone else.”

Zhao also came to the U.S. to learn English and stayed to be a coach (he works out of DeVeau’s School of Gymnastics in Indianapolis). He said that while it would seem that a coach would prefer the way elite young Chinese athletes are identified and schooled so thoroughly, with no outside distractions allowed, he prefers another way.

“I like to see our gymnasts have other interests,” he said. “They are from everywhere, they have their own lives and maybe in that way they don’t feel so much pressure. And then at the times you have them, you know they really want to be doing gymnastics. No one made them do it.”

Fong said what Chow and Zhao wouldn’t about the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“It would be such a great honor for both of them if they can go,” Fong said. “It would be a very big deal for them, a little bit of validation.”

Barring injury, it seems likely that Johnson, who recently won the U.S. national all-around title in a runaway, will make the U.S. team. Since winning junior nationals a year ago, Johnson has been trying to learn a bit of the Chinese language.

“It would be so cool to go to China with coach Chow,” she said. “He thinks it would be cool too.”