Douglas' all-around title is redemption for coach
Liang Chow stood next to Gabby Douglas, looked over and figured it was time for a chat.
Just a friendly talk. No need to mention to his star pupil that she was on the cusp of Olympic history. No reason to point out the only thing standing in the way of a gold medal was 90 seconds of controlled brilliance.
Instead, the soft-spoken coach who is starting to make a habit out of molding teenage gymnasts into champions offered a couple of gentle reminders, looking so relaxed he may as well have been standing in the brightly lit, homey gym he owns back in Iowa.
Don't get too wild Gabby, he said. Don't get so excited you forget the skills that have brought you to the point of becoming a champion.
''You're trying to keep her calm and keep her comfortable with herself, with the equipment so she has a better chance to perform her normal routine,'' Chow said.
Two minutes later, student and teacher embraced after Douglas claimed gold and gave her beloved coach a bit of redemption in the process.
Four years after narrowly missing the all-around title when Shawn Johnson lost to rival Nastia Liukin by 0.6 points in finals, Chow guided Douglas to the top of her sport with his unique style that can only be described as Chow being Chow.
Douglas and Chow will share one more moment in the spotlight Wednesday when the 16-year-old goes for a third medal in the balance beam finals, an event that's turned from a weakness into a strength thanks to a little prodding from her coach.
''He has a rapport with the girls that they really respond to,'' said U.S. women's national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. ''He knows them so well, he can get them to relax when they need to relax.''
And get them to go when they need to go.
Douglas - who decided to leave her family in Virginia two years ago to train with Chow after she saw him at a local gymnastics camp - relies on her coach and his wife, Li Zhuang, to keep her centered when things start getting a little too intense.
''I'm like, 'OK, Chow I need a pep talk. Tell me what to do,''' Douglas said. ''I love when they come up on the podium and talk to me. You're like, 'OK, I got this.'''
The relationship between Chow and Douglas isn't unlike the one he has with Johnson, who won the all-around at the 2007 world championship and followed up with four medals in Beijing.
It's the one Johnson didn't get, however, that stings.
The bubbly, charismatic Johnson went to China as the favorite and came home with silver. Chow felt for Johnson but has no regrets on how they handled their preparation for the games.
''There's no reason for a second thinking of myself,'' he said. ''You're learning from experience from the past. You just have to move forward to pick up some good points.''
He hoped to get another shot at the top of the podium, though he didn't expect to get one so soon. Douglas arrived in Iowa a raw package of seemingly limitless ability. Chow just had to find a way to harness it.
A former gymnastics champion in his native China, Chow values talent but respects determination. Maybe because it's what he relied on after coming to the University of Iowa over two decades ago when the school offered in a scholarship in exchange for some help coaching the men's gymnastics team.
Chow decided to stick around after finishing his studies, opening a gym in West Des Moines that has become a haven for some of the country's top elite.
He certainly got Douglas' attention in Beijing. She saw the way Chow and Johnson interacted, turned to her mother and said, ''I want him to coach me.''
Two years later, Douglas walked into Chow's gym and her life changed.
''There's a connection,'' said her mother, Natalie Hawkins. ''And people just love Chow.''
And Chow loves coaching, particularly students who stick to the tenets he preaches the second they walk in the door.
''They have to have the heart to learn to approach their goals or their ambitions through the hard work,'' he said. ''They have to enjoy their hard work and the process. If they don't have the heart, it doesn't matter.''
It was obvious from the second Douglas arrived she had the talent to excel. Getting her to find the drive took awhile longer.
There were more than a few days when Douglas would be in the middle of practice, get frustrated with the grind that comes with competing at an elite level and tell her coach she wanted to go home.
She never did.
Don't let his serene nature fool you. Chow can push the buttons when necessary.
''He didn't get to where he's at by being all smiles,'' U.S. women's coach John Geddert said. ''He has a way of delivering a message that's as intense as anybody.''
Yet he does it in a way that inspires trust, not trepidation. It's the way he is with all his students, regardless of age or skill.
''He's very similar with the older girls, the younger girls,'' Douglas said. ''It's amazing.''
So was Douglas on a night she joined Liukin, Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson in Olympic lore, and Chow took the one step that narrowly eluded him in Beijing.
''Nobody deserves it more,'' Geddert said. ''He's a classy guy.''