Welcome to Chow’s Gym in West Des Moines, home of Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson and Olympic hopeful, Gabby Douglas.
“I’ll make sure you have a good experience today,” says Liang Chow with a laugh.
Chow is the patriarch of this family of sprites. He watches closely as they stretch, twirl and tumble in ways that seem to defy the limits of the human body.
“Gymnastics is the only sport that works the entire body. Every little muscle will be sore tomorrow?” Chow says, again with a laugh.
Our muscles begin to ache just watching the workout. The only thing scarier than taking part, is Chow’s suggestion for apparel.
“I have two leotards for you.”
That is about as likely as us doing a back flip on the balance beam. But we can be coaxed into a warm-up, led by Shawn. At the age of 20, she’s considered the grandma of the group.
“Yeah, I kind of coach, mentor, I’m the best friend. I play all those roles at the moment,” says Shawn.
Shawn and Gabby will soon compete for a spot on the Olympic team. Chow recognizes a lot of work remains.
“This is a challenging one, because team USA expectations are very high,” says Chow. “They’re there for the gold, not just there for participation.”
Only a few have the physical and mental strength to make it.
“It takes so much physically, mentally, strength wise, emotionally,” says Gabby. We just learn how to stay strong and deal with it and stay fit and handle the pressure and stress.”
The splits are enough to test us – and this is just the beginning. Shawn and Gabby lead us to what we call the “baby” balance beam. It sits on the floor. Our coaches are convinced we can do better.
“There isn’t a difference, it’s just now you’re scared because it’s higher,” says Shawn jumping on to the “adult” balance beam.
Our hands are sweating, our feet are wobbly. A turn is terrifying. We begin to wonder, how does anyone reach the skill level of an Olympian on this thing?
Shawn points out that they start when they’re three years old and “have been doing it for 15 years.”
That explains some of it. But it also takes a certain type of toughness – one that allows you to put away your fear for a while and take on the world.
“Just go out there and show them what you’ve got,” says Gabby. “Prove to the world that you can do it.”