Liang Chow’s Gymnastics Coaching Journey: From Beijing to West Des Moines

Olympic athletes aren't the only ones with inspiring journeys: Liang Chow built a reputation as an elite gymnastics coach from scratch

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Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

Shawn Johnson of the USA is congratulated by her coach Liang Chow after competing in the Women's Beam Final at the National Indoor Stadium on Day 11 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 19, 2008 in Beijing, China.

Liang Chow spends practically his entire life in a gym. Trained in gymnastics ever since the district club where he lived in Beijing plucked him, at the age of five, from his school PE class for his promising tumbling skills, he has been in gyms around the world — training, competing, and winning championships. So it wasn’t unusual that on August 23, 1998, he found himself in yet another one, surrounded by the equipment that he had flipped, vaulted and jumped on nearly his entire life.

Chow stood in the middle of the 12m x 12m bright blue floor exercise mat that always forms the hub of any gymnastics facility. He looked over at the uneven bars, the vault runway, the balance beams, and the foam pit filled with brightly colored sponge blocks that protect gymnasts’ falls when they practice new skills. It certainly looked like every other gym he had been in throughout his career.

But it was different, because this one was his. That was the day that Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute opened in West Des Moines, Iowa. “That day, I was standing in the middle of the gym, and I looked up,” he says. “I was thinking about how I came on an airplane, with nobody to take care of me, and I went from the ground back up to the sky. I was very proud.”

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It’s been a thrilling flight indeed. More than two decades after making that first trip to the US, Chow, 44, is one of the leading women’s gymnastics coaches in the world. In 2008, he went back to his home country of China for the Beijing Games as the head coach for the US women’s team, and personal coach to Shawn Johnson, who vaulted her way to the silver medal in the all-around competition. (The US squad also earned the silver in the team event.) As coach for another medal favorite in London, Gabrielle Douglas, Chow is quickly becoming a sought-after man for his ability to make Olympic dreams come true.

That’s a far cry from the Chow — who then spelled his name the Chinese way, Qiao, but has since changed it to make it easier for western tongues — who took that flight to the US in 1991. Fresh from his competitive gymnastics career on the Chinese national men’s team, where he won the World Cup master championships in 1990, and a bronze medal at the 1989 world championships, he came to the US at the suggestion of his aunt, who was earning a PhD at the University of Iowa in Des Moines. Only familiar with the state-run system in which the government fed, housed, and took care of athletes like himself, Chow arrived in Iowa banking on a continuation of those services. No one told him that wouldn’t be the case. “In China, I lived in a dormitory, and the government paid for everything — food, buses. In Iowa, I had to run after the bus, and cook for myself,” he says, with his always-ready laugh. “The first weeks in the US, I was asking, ‘Where is my food?’”

He can laugh about it now, but the foreign culture and lack of support (his aunt took a job in Maine soon after Chow arrived) left him overwhelmed. Nothing seemed possible, and Chow felt trapped. He had been offered a coaching position in Beijing, but turned it down to come to the US — he couldn’t return and go back on his word. It didn’t help that he spoke only a limited amount of English. But he could speak gymnastics, so he eventually found a position as a coaching assistant in the men’s program at the University of Iowa. Unable to communicate with the students, he ended up demonstrating most of the gymnastics skills himself. Nothing, it seemed, got lost in translation since five of the men he trained ended up on the national team his first year in the program.

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Impressed with what he did with the men’s team, the women’s squad coach asked Chow to take on a full time coaching role in the women’s gymnastics program. Loathe to leave his first gymnastics students, but in need of a more secure position to support himself and his wife, Liwen Zhuang (also a gymnast on the Chinese national team who made the move with him to the US), he accepted a salaried position on the women’s team. But in working with the college students, he and Liwen knew they had to start younger. “We talked and decided we can do more if we start younger, when the girls are more fresh and it is easier for them to learn new skills,” he says.

After briefly considering other states — “I started with California, and I did not like it. I flew over to Seattle, and I did not like it much” — he came full circle back to Iowa. “I felt like Iowa is the place—I like the people, and the environment,” he says.

With the help of a friend, he also got a good deal on an ideal spot — a small warehouse , and opened his first gymnastics center in 1998. Within five years, he needed to expand, and built his current two-gym facility on 11 acres of a cornfield.

From the moment he became a coach, particularly of the younger students who just found gymnastics fun, Chow vowed to keep that youthful passion for the sport part of his teaching style, even with elite athletes.  A typical day at his gym sees dozens of gymnasts of all ages cycling through their sessions, with Chow providing encouragement and eliciting the occasional giggles as he picks up a youngster in a handstand and swings her around, or playfully swats gymnasts practicing vault sprints with a foam bat to speed them up. Always ready with a smile and a joke, Chow laughs more than he scowls. That’s what kept Shawn Johnson, a native of West Des Moines, with him for nearly two decades as a competitive gymnast, and guided her to the sport’s ultimate test—the Olympic Games. “Chow is like a father to me, we’ve been with each other for so long,” she says.

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It’s also what drew Gabrielle Douglas, who was living in Virginia Beach, to him. Watching on TV the hugs and smiles and genuine support Chow gave Johnson during the Beijing Games, Douglas could practically feel the warmth travelling all those miles and reaching through the screen. “I wanted to be there,” she says of being able to call Chow coach.

Douglas now lives with a host family to train with Chow in Iowa, and despite missing her family, doesn’t regret the sacrifices she has made to hone her gymnastics skills with him. “He brings out what we didn’t know we had inside,” she says.

That’s Chow’s specialty. Gymnastics, he believes, is a great teacher; he credits his time in the sport with providing him with the discipline, perspective and resilience to not only endure in the gym but in life as well. “I think gymnastics trained me as a person too,” he says. “Without the lessons I learned in gymnastics, I would be crushed.”

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Which is why he passes on the same parables to his students. In Chow’s gym, it’s all about pushing athletes to not only win, but to win and be satisfied with the journey to the podium. That’s exactly what Douglas was looking for, and what she found in the hugs and warmth she felt when she saw Chow for the first time. A talented athlete who earned the only guaranteed spot on the London squad by winning the Olympic Trials, Douglas turned to Chow for help on consistency during competitions, and on learning to tune out the butterflies that seemed to take flight during high pressure events. He focused on turning her attention away from the competition and back to the training gym, to the dozens of routines she performs over and over to build up muscle memory.

It worked. “I tell her, if you perform your routine and follow my directions and you’re doing good, it’s your deal. And if you screw up, it’s my mistake, so don’t worry about it,” he says. In London, Chow will be on the Olympic floor again, with another confident gymnast with the skills and the consistency to challenge for the coveted women’s all-around title. As a coach, it’s the ultimate professional validation to be sought after as a mentor. But for Chow, there is a deeper, more personal validation as well. “If you have the talent and if you have the ability, and you work for it, you can achieve your goals,” he says. Even if it seems impossible.

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