Gymnastics: Chow finds his Field of Dreams in Iowa
LONDON (Reuters) - Not far from the Des Moines home of U.S. Olympic gymnastics team head coach Liang Chow sits a famed baseball diamond, an Iowa landmark that featured in the Hollywood movie "Field of Dreams".
In the movie a voice tells farmer Ray Kinsella to build a diamond in his cornfield, and the eight dead players from the Chicago Black Sox scandal show up to play.
In another Iowa cornfield, Chow also heard a voice; his own, telling him to build a gym, and gymnasts have come in ever-increasing numbers looking to realise their Olympic dreams.
Among them was Gabby Douglas, a precocious 14-year-old African-American determined to be the best, who talked her mother into letting her move halfway across the United States convinced Chow could mould her into a champion.
Two years later, Douglas is a double gold medallist at the London Games and America's Olympic sweetheart having been passed the torch from another Chow pupil, 2007 world champion and 2008 Olympic all-round silver medallist Shawn Johnson.
"Yes, yes, I know of this place (Field of Dreams)," Chow told Reuters on Tuesday. "I feel like I am living in a dream world.
"As a coach you cannot find a better feeling, number one demonstrating your ability and number two helping the younger generation reach their goals.
"Educating kids gives me a huge, huge happiness on a daily basis."
Chow, who seems to be able to grow young girls into world and Olympic champions as easily as farmers grow corn in the Hawkeye State, is living his own American Dream after spending half his life in China's state-run sports system.
STARTED AT FIVE
Identified at a young age for his tumbling prowess, Chow entered the Chinese sports pipeline at five years old and remained there into his twenties, winning numerous Chinese national titles and sharing in a team bronze medal at the 1989 world championships.
But after a string of injuries Chow's competitive career was over and at 23 he began to seek new adventures and challenges.
In 1991, at the urging of his aunt, Chow landed in Des Moines where he studied and took a part-time job coaching the University of Iowa's gymnastics team. He also made a side deal with members of the men's squad that he demonstrate some moves in exchange for teaching him "proper English".
"It was very hard because I was already had an established situation in China, I was a well-known athlete and it was hard for me to settle in Iowa as a student," recalled Chow. "When you are 23-year-old young man you don't think that much about things.
"You are free, you just want to see what is out there and discover things yourself.
"I wanted discover what America looked like."
At the moment, things could not look better for Chow and his wife Liwen Zhuang, also a former member of the Chinese gymnastic team. The Chow Gymnastics and Dance Institute hosts everything from birthday parties to U.S. national team training camps.
Chow brought very little with him when he left China other than the knowledge gleaned from nearly two decades of international competition and surviving in the Chinese sporting pressure cooker. Those experiences are the currency on which his gymnastics empire is built.
"I took many gold medals as a gymnast but the biggest benefits me is that gymnastics training made who I am as a person, as a coach, as businessman, teaching me to stay on top things," said Chow. "As a gymnast I trained very hard, pushed myself very hard.
"I was a self-motivated boy, I wanted to be a winner even though I was not the most attentive kid on the team.
"I trained harder, put more effort, more time into the gym. Those things really benefited me."
PICTURE OF CALM
Chow laughs easily but demands the same kind of effort from those who come to him looking to become Olympic champions.
He is a picture of calm in the whirlwind of action around an Olympic competition, gliding in to talk to one of his girls then sliding back into the shadows.
When necessary, Chow knows how to make his points as he did with Douglas just prior to the start of the Olympic competition when he thought she was losing focus.
A few days later, Douglas was locked in on her gold medal target like a laser-guided missile, helping the United States to their first team title in 16 years. Two day later she claimed gymnastics' biggest prize, the Olympic all-round crown, and along with a big hug from her coach.
It was a similar scene that Douglas witnessed while watching the Beijing Olympics on television four years earlier in that convinced her Chow was her man.
Seeing how Chow interacted with Johnson and the other U.S. gymnasts, Douglas felt an instant connection and knew Iowa was where her future lay.
"I wanted to make my Olympic dreams a reality, so I told my mother 'I need a better coach'," said Douglas, who was living in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
"I saw Shawn at the Olympics and I was like, "Wow, Chow's so happy and he has such faith in you.' I wanted to be there."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
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