Leaping From Average to top Gymanastics Star in the shortest time

From Average to top Gymanastics Star in the Olympics in a short time

Gabby Douglas, age 16, the top gymnastics star in the 2012 London olympics, was coached by Liang Chow, 44, a Chinese gymnast who was a little too young to make the team for Seoul Olympics in 1988. A back injury prevented him to compete in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics also, so he retired from competition. He opened his own gym in 1998, with the aim of coaching aspiring gymnasts at an earlier age, when they were more malleable: "There's nothing better than to help the younger generations, your students, achieve their goals, achieve their dream."

Gabby Douglas says Chow became a surrogate father to her, when she chose him in 2010 as her coach, who pushed her athletically without punishing her emotionally. Gabby had 21 months of training at Chow's Gymnastics in West Des Moines, Iowa. Gabby arrived at age 14, brimming with talent but burdened by a reputation for buckling under pressure. Chow had to discover the right way to motivate Gabby, to teach her that world-class gymnastics isn't merely a matter of technique, but rather letting others feel your joy as you compete.

To become the Olympic champion, Gabby first had to give up everything she grew up with. She had to leave her home town of Virginia Beach, where she lived with her mother, two sisters and brother. She had to bid goodbye also to her two dogs, who used to sleep in her bed, and bid farewell to the beach, where she loved to ride the waves. But she took the leap, however heartbreaking it was, at the tender age of 14. Off she went about 1,200 miles to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with a coach from China and live with a white family she had never met. When she arrived in Iowa, she felt that she must be the only black person in the state. The white family, a couple with four young daughters became her second family, nurturing her in Iowa. Liang Chow transformed Gabby into one of the best gymnasts in the world, helping her skyrocket from an average member of the national team to the top of the sport. Gabby also made history. By winning the Olympic all-around title, she became the first black woman to do so.

Just five months ago, the coordinator of the women's national team did not think Gabby had what it took to be an Olympian. Apparently, even as recently as a few weeks ago, the coordinator reportedly said that Gabby lacked confidence and focus.

When Gabby Douglas was 6, her mother enrolled her in gymnastics. About three years ago, Chow attended a nearby gymnastics clinic and helped Gabby learn a very difficult vault — which included one flip and two and a half twists — in one afternoon. Gabby liked his easygoing style of coaching , and tried to convince her mother to allow her to get training from him. But her mother was not for it, since she was already financially stretched, trying to keep house, and juggling to raise four children.

Miles away, in Iowa, another family was also making a big decision. Missy and Travis Parton decided to open their home to one of Chow's students who could not afford housing. They did so just after Missy Parton's mother died. "God never took something away without filling the hole, without replacing it with something," Missy Parton said. "And for us he just happened to replace it with a 16-year-old black girl." Gabby's mother and Missy Parton talked several times and a deal was struck. Both shared religious beliefs. Both had four children. By 2010, Gabby was at the Partons' front door. The family tried to make her feel at home, taking her to all family outings, teaching her how to drive.

Gabby found that she was one of the very few black people in town. Often, she was the only black gymnast at high-level competitions. Back home, in Virginia Beach, a lot of people looked like her. It was not the case in Iowa, and that made her self-conscious. That unease did not last. She and the Partons family soon began joking about it, saying: 'Look, there is a black person down the street. I told you there was at least one other black person in Iowa!' That positive attitude helped Gabby, who came to Iowa shy and reserved, was soon bursting with bubbliness. Although she saw her mother only four times in two years, she blossomed.

There was always the question about Gabby's ability to focus. At the Olympic trials, the coordinator scolded her for looking at the crowd before her routine on the balance beam. Gabby felt concentrating was not easy. But on the day Gabby was going to the Olympic arena, her mother called and said, "I believe in you, baby." Douglas said, "I believe, too." That was all Gabby needed to have the night of her life. She landed a huge vault to start off and never relinquished the lead.

Afterward, even the ever-critical coordinator said she couldn't recall "anybody this quickly rising from an average good gymnast to a fantastic one."

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