The sports relationship between a Chinese-born, Iowa-based coach and the Virginia-raised gymnast he guided to an historic all-around gold medal at the Olympics has ended.
Gabrielle Douglas, who became the first African-American to capture the sport’s most coveted championship, blossomed under the wing of Liang Chow, the owner of Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in West Des Moines.
Douglas has moved to Los Angeles to join her family, leaving those who follow the star coach and the 17-year-old celebrity to wonder what it could mean for a bid by Douglas to compete in the 2016 Games.
No matter what the future holds for both, it appears unlikely Douglas will call Chow coach again.
“At this point, I don’t think so,” said Liwen Zhuang, Chow’s wife and co-owner of the training facility. “No.”
The move by Douglas, who had resumed post-Olympics training at the Iowa gym in May and first reported Wednesday on DesMoinesRegister.com, was as surprising to Chow, apparently, as it was sudden.
Douglas visited the gym Monday to tell the coach who molded her and mentored her two-gold run at the London Olympics that she was leaving to join her family in California. Missy Parton, who served as a host parent since February 2011 along with her husband, Travis, said Douglas left Iowa on Tuesday.
Representatives for Douglas did not return messages seeking comment. A number for Natalie Hawkins, her mother, in the family’s hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., is no longer in service.
Missy Parton said Douglas’ family moved to Los Angeles earlier this summer and that her brother attends school there. Parton declined, however, to comment on reasons for the move.
“I am really not in a position to speculate or to say what caused her to move out there,” she said.
Chow, on vacation the remainder of this week and next in his native China, was unavailable for comment. Liwen said it’s unclear to her and her husband what prompted the decision for Douglas to change both coach and scenery.
“She came over (Monday) and said goodbye to us,” Liwen said. “I didn’t ask her (the reasons). I did talk to her. She was a little upset. I guess that’s a family decision for her.”
Douglas has said she plans to compete for a spot at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"I definitely want to do it again," Douglas said in May, on the first day she returned to the workout facility of Chow, who coached Shawn Johnson to one gold and three silvers at the 2008 Olympics. "… I love competing. It's going to take much more hard work. It's going to be different than 2012 because everyone knows me now and has expectations."
The popularity and celebrity of Douglas soared after the London Games. She was named the Associated Press female athlete of the year, participated in a book about her life, landed endorsement deals ranging from Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to Nike and donated personal items to Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Forbes.com quoted a sports marketing expert who estimated those deals could be worth $10 million over the coming four years alone.
Chow’s gym currently is training three elite-level gymnasts who are considered Olympic hopefuls: Norah Flatley, Alexis Vasquez, and Rachel Gowey. Last weekend, Flatley finished second overall and Vasquez third in the balance beam at the junior national championships in Hartford, Conn.
Steve Penny, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, told the Des Moines Sunday Register that Chow elevated Douglas to medal-capturing levels.
“He had a short time frame,” Penny said. “She was somewhat already molded (after moving from Virginia). Chow worked with what had already been developed. He's smart, and knows how to bring out the strength of an athlete.”
Parton said Douglas became immediately fit in after arriving at their home in February 2011.
“She’s one of our family. We said all along, we’ve treated her as one of our own,” she said. “It’s hard to see her go, but we knew at some point, she wasn’t going to stay here forever.”
Liwen emphasized how much her family cares for Douglas, while admitting the decision caught them by somewhat off-guard.
“We were not really sure for a long time, because we heard from other people first,” she said. “Nothing was really confirmed. We didn’t really know for sure. We heard some rumors.
“It’s kind of awkward.”
The decision to leave Iowa for sunny California created a chance for a light-hearted joke.
“I think maybe they like to be in a warm place after she became a celebrity or something,” said Liwen, laughing.
SMH if this was a family decision and not hers :/