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Shawn Johnson and Liang Chow defy politics

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For American gymnast and recently crowned Olympic champion Shawn Johnson, last week’s games weren’t only about living the Olympic dream, though that in itself is a fairy tale. For Johnson, the sprite 16-year-old from Iowa, and Liang Chow, her Beijing-born coach, theirs was a dream of East meeting West.

Shawn Johnson, the bubbly, fresh-faced teenager, and Liang Chow, the former Chinese national team captain in the 1980s, seem like an unlikely match. As the story goes, Chow immigrated to Iowa and opened a gym with secondhand equipment, and Johnson’s parents wanted to channel their daughter’s energy into something productive like gymnastics, and the pair has been united ever since.

Due to the responsibilities of running his gym business, Chow hadn’t been back to his hometown in 14 years. As an Olympian, Johnson brought him back.

“I think it means more to me than anybody could really ever imagine,” the petite gymnastics powerhouse said in an NBC interview of bringing Chow and his wife, Li, back to Beijing. “I hope ... to prove to their country that they still are as successful as they were and make their country as proud as they were before.” This statement alone is enough to put a lump in anyone’s — including my — throat.

Team USA can proclaim quite a few United States-China connections in this year’s Olympic games in Beijing, including several athletes of Chinese descent and a similar coach-athlete situation with Lang Ping, the coach of the U.S. women’s volleyball team. But I see the Johnson-Chow relationship as a true testament to cross-cultural collaboration.

One relatively unknown but noteworthy example is Chow’s use of traditional Chinese medicine to treat Johnson’s injuries; instead of using an ice pack to treat bruises and inflammations, he uses a warm pack.

Such an example only touches on the mentality of Chow’s philosophy of coaching. Chow lived the life of a child-athlete in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, one of training camps and backbreaking workouts. Contrastingly, in his Iowa gym, Johnson does compact four-hour workouts under his watchful eye, where he is critical, but never harsh. This strict-yet-gentle system has proven its success in Chow’s athletes. Shawn is well trained but relatively injury free, and, most importantly, happy.

Chow and Johnson are also affected by the political climate of Beijing. Despite the many protests and controversies leading up to the games, Chow is unfazed by the political dynamic he carries as a Chinese-American.

“It’s beautiful. Beautiful,” Chow said of his native city in a Philadelphia Daily News interview. “I’m not talking about political things. We are simply athletes. I’m not a politician, myself.” Chow’s statement was all the more important in this year’s controversy-fraught Olympics; when a man like Chow, who bridges two cultures, sets the precedent to treat the Olympics like the harmonious event it is supposed to be, perhaps the rest of the world will catch on and not get the harmony of sports muddled with the entanglements of politics.

Meanwhile, Shawn herself has benefited from Chow’s heritage. Sporting a friendly personality, Shawn has remarked upon how she feels particularly close to the Chinese gymnasts and the Chinese crowd.
The athlete-coach relationship between Johnson and Chow bridges and even embraces the East-West divide. Chow brings a wealth of Chinese methods: Chinese medicine and Chinese discipline, for example, but as an athlete who left home at the age of 10 for elite-level sports camps, he understands the need for Johnson to live a normal life. If she were to succumb fully to the pressures of the elite level of the sport at which she competes, Johnson would likely not have been grounded — or well-rounded — enough to have competed with such composure, strength, and grace at the Olympic Games.

Chow’s understanding of the Chinese sports system was a significant factor shaping his development of his own training facility in West Des Moines. His gym trains everyone from recreational toddlers to Shawn Johnson, in contrast to the Chinese system where only the best are plucked from their homes to train as champions. A system that promotes hard work towards greatness is respectable, but a system that denies their athletes the joys of childhood is not.

But this is America, and this gym was his American dream, and Chow made sure that his athletes also led normal lives.

The star product of Chow’s American dream, Shawn Johnson, has charmed the Chinese in her own right. With a personality as big as her vault routine, Johnson delighted Chinese Cable Television (CCTV) by counting from one to ten in Chinese. They proceeded to present her with a life-size picture of herself.

Johnson’s most prominent traits are her ability to connect with other cultures and a sense of normality. Whereas fellow American gymnast Nastia Liukin and her Soviet-born parents can also be applauded for their cross-cultural connections, she was born into gymnastics royalty and seems to have felt like she was entitled or required to commit to something grand in the sport. As Nastia performed, her father watched from the sidelines with even more tension than his daughter.

Meanwhile, Liang and Shawn, their smiles ever present, waited patiently, silver after silver, until Shawn spun balance beam gold. This was the Olympic dream of the girl from Iowa, and it was also the Olympic dream of a man who once crossed an ocean in search of something that eventually led him back home again.

“I hope I made him proud,” Shawn said of her coach to NBC.

I think she did.