While the world tunes into the XXII Olympic Winter Games being played this month in Sochi, Russia, it’s business as usual at Chow’s Gymnastics & Dance Institute in West Des Moines where Liang Chow is training Olympic hopefuls with the kind of steadfast determination, skill and humility embodied by his most famous students, Olympic champions Shawn Johnson and Gabrielle Douglas.
“There’s always work to be done,” says Chow, whose modest-looking gym located at the corner of Grand and Chow’s Olympic avenues is advertised by a new 22-foot Olympic sculpture and is one of the exclusive national team training centers in the United States.
Later this month, Chow will coach four of his elite students — Rachel Gowey, Norah Flatley, Alexis Vasquez and Victoria Nguyen — at a national training camp in Houston where they will compete against some of the nation’s best young gymnasts. It’s one of many stops on the long, grinding road to Olympic gold.
“All of them potentially could help their country at the highest level someday,” says Chow of his students competing in Houston. “It’s for national team members, and it’s also an opportunity for prospects to show a very good quality of gymnastics in helping them prepare to compete at the international elite level, which is the highest level of gymnastics.”
While Chow’s elite gymnasts capture headlines, his work with athletes of all abilities captures the imaginations of young girls and boys alike and the respect of their parents who sometimes make life-altering sacrifices for their children to train with him. The coach says that while many of his students have a burning desire to be the next Johnson or Douglas, his goal is to teach them skills that will help them for the rest of their lives.
“I’m proud of Shawn and Gabby, but I’m also proud to have produced 499 individual state champions and students who go on to compete at top gymnastics colleges like Nebraska, Iowa State, Denver and Florida. We have wonderful teachers and staff who not only work hard to produce champions, but tomorrow’s leaders,” says Chow.
The coach’s personal story alone is an example of how hard work and perseverance can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The 46-year-old Beijing, China, native began training in gymnastics at the age of 5. He later competed on China’s national gymnastics team for more than a decade, winning numerous national and international medals, before a back injury forced him to retire from competition.
At the urging of his aunt who was studying at the University of Iowa, Chow moved to Iowa City to study and coach gymnastics at Iowa. He and his wife, Liwen Zhuang, a former Chinese national gymnast, moved to West Des Moines and opened Chow’s Gymnastics & Dance Institute on Aug. 23, 1998. That year, he also began coaching a six-year-old West Des Moines girl who would help put him on the worldwide coaching and Olympics map.
“He moved here from China with a dream and a goal to become a coach and to have fun with kids and show them a different side of what elite sports can be,” says West Des Moines native Johnson, 23, who is now enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville where she is studying sports psychology and dietetics. “He can be really serious and tough at times, but he’s really a big kid at heart, and he lets the kids enjoy their passion, which is not that common in that sport.”
For Johnson, who won a gold and three silver Olympic medals in 2008 and world gymnastics championships in 2007 and 2008, Chow was more than a coach. He was like a father figure.
“I was 6 years old when I started going to Chow’s 20 hours a week,” says Johnson. “He and his wife became my second set of parents. They were raising these little girls, and we learned discipline and respect and how to set your sights on a goal and how to work for it and how to overcome obstacles. I feel like other than my mom and dad, they had the most influence on my life during the 10 years that I was with them.”
Johnson also recalls Chow’s unique coaching techniques early in their careers.
“He was still mastering English when I started with him, so he would show me things because he was a fresh-out-of-retirement athlete. He was very hands-on, and he does things differently from conventional gymnastics coaches,” she says. “I always talk about how he made it fun for the kids. In the summer, we’d go outside and play on a slip ‘n’ slide or do skills on the grass instead of the beam. He would let us be kids. That’s one of the life lessons he taught us. When you’re done with your work for the day, then you get to have fun.”
That formula for success not only shaped Johnson but attracted young athletes from across the country to move to West Des Moines to train with Chow. Among them, Virginia native Douglas, who joined Chow’s gym in 2010 and went on to become a member of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team at the 2012 Summer Olympics and won gold medals in both the individual all-around and team competitions. Chow was her personal coach at the 2012 London games and for the second time in his career was named National Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic and Pan American Olympic committees.
Though the success that Douglas achieved is rare, her story of personal sacrifice is familiar to many who train at Chow’s. The coach estimates about one-third of his students have moved to West Des Moines from other states and Iowa cities to train with him.
Four years ago, Angela Loper and her husband decided it was best that she and their daughter, Courtney, move to Iowa (while he stayed in Arizona) so that their 15-year-old gymnast could train at Chow’s. Now a Level 10 gymnast (one level before the elite team), last year Courtney Loper was a silver medalist in state beam and regional bars competitions.
“We absolutely love it here, and I can’t say enough good things about Chow and Liwen,” says Angela Loper, whose daughter began training in gymnastics at age 3 and has already accepted a scholarship to attend the University of Denver.
“It’s neat to see so many parents out there who make incredible sacrifices for their kids. That goes to show how great Chow is as a coach, that they come to him to help them live out their dreams,” says Johnson.
Winning Olympic gold and silver medals with Chow by her side was a dream come true for Johnson.
“It meant everything to me. He was my family. I wasn’t just a student on a journey to get a medal for myself. It was a joint thing,” she says. “I was his work. I lived and breathed to make him proud. When we made it to Beijing, China, and competed and got the medal, it was something we shared together. It was a pretty cool moment.”
Johnson says she is also happy that Chow has gained the acceptance and support of his fellow Iowans, especially those in West Des Moines.
“West Des Moines is the best city, and Chow picked the perfect place to open his gym because there’s no one more supportive than the city,” she says. “For me, it was such a blessing to have a coach like that in my hometown. He’s become a well-known coach that people flock to.”
Chow says he is grateful for the support he has received from his local community and Iowans everywhere.
“I’m very fortunate,” he says, also noting the hundreds of volunteers who helped revive the gym in three days after it flooded in the summer of 2008. “I feel like I’m living in a dream place.”
Chow says he doesn’t get to talk to his former star students as often as he likes, adding that they all lead very busy lives, which doesn’t leave much time for them to reminisce. But he thinks of them often, just as he does about his new students and gymnastic stars in the making.
“Shawn’s special to me because she was never out of my sight for 10 years. She and Gabby both had the will to work hard and the burning desire to be a champion,” he says. “All the kids who train here, though, they’re all like our children. The best part of coaching is to see their smiling faces and help them achieve their dream.”