Skip to main content
Original Issue

East Meets Midwest

A Chinese coach at an Iowa gym has helped build smart, spirited 16-year-old Shawn Johnson into the world all-around champion and the gold medal favorite. Now she wants to bring him glory in his homeland

SHAWN JOHNSON should have been able to relax. She is, after all, the 16-year-old poster child for the world champion U.S. women's gymnastics team, the winner of three golds, including the all-around title, in Stuttgart, Germany, last September. With her big brown eyes and guileless smile, she's a hometown hero in Des Moines, where a local car dealer gave her the keys to a new Land Rover for her birthday in January. Not that Johnson needed the handout—she has endorsement contracts with Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Hy-Vee supermarkets, among others. An A student at Valley High in West Des Moines, the sophomore has her sights set on someday attending an Ivy League college. And if that isn't enough, the diminutive (4'9", 94 pounds) Johnson has already been cast in bronze, with the life-sized statue to be displayed in the Iowa Hall of Pride in Des Moines, opposite the black-and-white photos of Mamie Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover and Andy Williams. All this comes before the Beijing Olympics, at which Johnson hopes to become the third American woman, after Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson, to win an Olympic all-around gold. The world, it would seem, is the young lady's oyster.

But Johnson didn't see it that way on this February night. With Beijing approaching and 2007 behind her, that old devil Doubt had wheedled its way into her psyche. She was at the well-known "ranch"—Bela and Martha Karolyi's national-team training center 90 minutes north of Houston—along with dozens of other Olympic hopefuls who are brought there monthly to show off routines and sharpen their skills under the critical eye of Martha, the team coordinator. No one is guaranteed a ticket to Beijing, not even a world champion.

So Johnson couldn't sleep. In 2007 she'd won every competition she had entered: the American Cup, the American Classic, the Pan Am Games, the national and the world championships. But now it was a new year. At 12:30 a.m. she sat up in her bed, grabbed her cellphone and typed out a poem. This is how she relieves stress: with creative spurts of writing, drawing or painting. "There are no guidelines to writing," she says. "It lets me be free and do whatever I want. I let it all out."

The activity is her escape from gymnastics, with its demands of precision and the pursuit of perfection, its exhaustively rehearsed and regimented routines. That night Johnson cranked out 33 lines of rhyming couplets in 10 minutes, spilling her doubts onto the tiny screen. The poem dealt with the fear of losing and the occasional impulse to give up the sport.

When behind the scenes you crumbled and prayed
For it all to simply just go away.
The doubt and regrets of what you went through
Sometimes just made you want to give it to
The next girl in line....

She texted the poem to her mother, Teri, an accounting clerk for the West Des Moines school system, before going to sleep. Teri is frequently surprised and moved by what Shawn writes. "I don't know where her artistic side comes from," Teri says. "She's got a good little soul."

You remember the times when you thought to give up
But could never find a reason to disrupt
Anything and everything you had given to the sport
The heart's desire and all the support.

"Every day before practice, I reread it," Shawn says. "Writing that poem released a lot of the pressure. World champion is such a huge title to live up to."

TERI AND Doug Johnson, an independent contractor specializing in interior trim work, didn't push Shawn up the gymnastics ladder. Quite the opposite. Every time Shawn's coach, Liang Chow, told Teri he wanted to advance Shawn a level, Teri asked him to reconsider. "Chow has told me I'm the only mom who asked him to hold her daughter back," Teri says. "I thought she'd be better off competing against kids her own age."

Chow knew better. He grew up in Beijing, which is why Teri believes destiny has been at work. "I have a gut feeling they were supposed to meet and do this thing," she says. "It's just been too easy. We haven't done anything to make this happen."

A member of the bronze-medal-winning Chinese national team at the 1989 world championships, Chow accepted a scholarship two years later to a place he'd never been, the University of Iowa, to study English and help coach the gymnastics teams. In doing so, he left behind a world of relative wealth and privilege for the spartan life of an American college student. "I was pretty famous in China," says Chow, who was making more money than his father, a senior electrician. "He was a pretty tough guy. I'd never seen him cry before, but he cried when I left."

Chow was 23 when he arrived in Iowa City with a suitcase and a kindergartner's grasp of English, but he relished the adventure. "Gymnastics trained me, not just for gold medals, but for life," he says. "There is no fear in gymnastics. If you can do a double backflip, you can do anything. It was hard at first, but later on, Iowa seemed like heaven to me. I love this country and this system because if you have the talent and the knowledge, you can use it."

Two years later he married his girlfriend, Liwen Zhuang, a member of a Chinese professional gymnastics team, in Beijing. By 1998 they'd saved enough money to pursue his dream of running his own gym, and he looked into facilities that were for sale in Los Angeles and Seattle. In the end, though, they opened Chow's Gymnastics in West Des Moines, just a few blocks from the Johnsons' house. "I'm from the big city," Chow says, "but I don't really like big cities."

Chow's had been open only two months when six-year-old Shawn bounced in. "From Day One we realized this kid was really special, because she loves learning and wants to reach her potential," says Chow. "She's a hard worker and handles pressure really well. She loves to show off for the cameras and the big crowd."

Chow and Zhuang coach in the Chinese style of their upbringing. Mutual respect is their guiding principle. Gymnasts show up on time or early, and if anyone rolls her eyes or complains, she is told to stand and watch. "It's almost like shunning," says Shawn. No crying is tolerated, no hissy fits, as she calls the frustration-fueled tantrums that sometimes occur in a gym. Throughout workouts, Chow wears a broad smile of delight and encouragement. "He tells them all the same thing: 'You're here to have fun,'" says Doug Johnson. "If Chow's not laughing or smiling, he's mad. But I've never heard him yell. He just gives them that look."

Shawn's skills have benefited from this nontraditional approach. "I've been told I'm a mix [of gymnastics styles]," Shawn says. "I have the precision and technique people admire in the Chinese and the power that's typical of American gymnasts. It makes me stand out."

Johnson has remained remarkably injury-free for a top gymnast, which her parents also credit to Chow's coaching techniques. At his facility the gymnasts work out just once a day, from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.—most top gymnasts train twice a day for a total of six or seven hours—and if Johnson feels a muscle strain or soreness, Chow believes in applying heat to the affected area, as is done in China, not ice. That puts him at odds with U.S. team doctors and trainers, but Johnson doesn't think twice about whose advice to follow. "I've been with Chow since I was six, and I've trusted him with my life," she says. "He's like my second dad."

The training schedule also allows her to attend a public school. Even in an Olympic year she has kept a close-to-regular academic schedule, taking biology, geometry, French and modern American literature. (Next year she hopes to make up for this relatively light load by taking seven courses each semester.) "Her peers give her support but also keep her humble," says Karla Hardy, Johnson's guidance counselor. "She's so conscientious and highly motivated, and has an incredible zest for learning. She'll have her pick of Ivy League colleges."

First, though, there's Beijing, a dream Johnson has harbored since 2003. That was the year Zhuang, who coaches Johnson on the balance beam, brought back a commemorative gold medal from a trip to China. The first member of Chow's Gymnastics to win a national title, the team was told, would get to keep it. Shawn, age 12, went to junior Olympic nationals the next year and won the beam. The commemorative medal, she hopes, will be replaced by a real one come August.

Shawn knows what it will mean to Chow to return to Beijing, where he hasn't been in nearly 15 years, as the coach of the world champion. "He hasn't said anything," she says. "He'd never put that kind of pressure on me. But after I won in Stuttgart, he told me how honored he was to be my coach, and that was the first time I ever saw him cry."

So she takes nothing for granted. She listens, works and trusts in the wisdom of her Chinese coach. And when the pressure mounts, she rereads the poem that she wrote that night in February.

The sky is its limits—
And with the moon as its guide,
As no one could ever predict how high
One could travel with the hard work put in
To truly become a Champion.

People tell Johnson she has the PRECISION AND TECHNIQUE of the Chinese and the power that's typical of American gymnasts.

Global Influence

Foreign coaches have boosted U.S. gymnastics to a new level

SHAWN JOHNSON isn't the only top U.S. gymnast trained by a foreign-born coach. Ever since Romania's Bela Karolyi guided Mary Lou Retton to Olympic all-around gold in 1984, there's been a brain drain of overseas coaching talent into the U.S., and it has made American gymnastics into a colossus. Here are some of the likely Beijing-bound gymnasts who have foreign coaches.

A two-time U.S. all-around champ—and the top challenger to Johnson—the elegant Liukin is coached by her father, Valeri, who won two golds for the Soviet Union at the '88 Games. Her mother, Anna, was an '87 world champion in rhythmic gymnastics for the U.S.S.R. Liukin trains at a Plano, Texas, gym that her parents co-own.

The runner-up in the all-around at the '06 worlds, Bieger is coached by her mother, Andrea, a three-time Olympian for West Germany, at the family's gymnastics center in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

A sophomore at Brown and the spiritual leader of the gold-medal-winning '07 world championship team, she is coached by Mihai Brestyan, a former Romanian national team coach who has a gym in Burlington, Mass.

Another veteran of the '07 world team, Peszek is coached by Chinese-born Xueyi (Peter) Zhao in Fishers, Ind.

Yet another member of the '07 world team, Hong is coached in Blue Springs, Mo., by Armenian-born Armine Barutyan-Fong, a former Russian national team member, and her Chinese-American husband, Al Fong.

The '06 U.S. all-around champ is coached by his father, Vladimir, a former Soviet team member, at a gym in Wheat Ridge, Colo.

The reigning U.S. all-around titlist is coached by Vitaly Marinitch, a four-time world medalist for the U.S.S.R. and Ukraine and now resident head coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.




Read Tim Layden on U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay's quest to win four gold medals in Beijing.



Photograph by Al Tielemans

RARE AIR Johnson hopes to become the third U.S. woman to win all-around gold, joining Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson.



IN SYNC Chow's upbeat style helps Johnson ward off the daunting pressure.



TOP THREAT Liukin won the all-around at the American Cup in March.



SOUND BODY Her coach's non-Western treatment methods and shorter training hours have kept Johnson injury-free.