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Two Chinese superstars shine in Beijing – as part of Team USA

"Jenny” Lang Ping and Chow Liang, the coaches of the US volleyball team and American gymnast Shawn Johnson respectively, have returned home to great acclaim.

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For a woman who, at 6 feet tall, already stands out, the adoration became overwhelming. After retiring, she went to the University of New Mexico.

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“I went to the US because I wanted to taste a normal life,” she says. “It’s pretty tiring to stay in your room all the time. You can’t even go to a movie.”

When Chow went to the United States, his family thought he was crazy.

“Gymnasts in China are like football players” in the US, he says.

He had become co-captain of the Chinese team by 1990. But he sensed that he had progressed as far as he could in Chinese gymnastics, so he took a full scholarship to Iowa. At first, he was not sure he had made the right decision.

“I almost wanted to go back because of culture shock,” he laughs.

He laughs often, a self-effacing smile that is easy to see reflected in Johnson herself. She is his baby almost as much as Chow and his wife, Zhuang Liwen, are a sort of second set of parents to Johnson.

He eventually opened a gym in Des Moines, Iowa, hoping to “get [gymnasts] young, so I can do it my own way and don’t have to fix someone else’s technique,” he says.

Johnson is his first star student: “She is the program.”

“He is the best coach ever,” she responds, less as a statement of fact than affection.

Four years ago, when Johnson won her first national title on balance beam, Zhuang couldn’t be there. Chow recalls Johnson turning to him and saying: “Chow, this is for Li.”

Chow is now a US citizen. Lang has been the US coach for four years. Before that, she spent two years coaching the Chinese women’s team, winning silver at the Atlanta Games, and six years coaching women’s professional volleyball in Italy, where she was named coach of the year more than once.

At the Capital Gymnasium, even President Hu would have to acknowledge she was coach of the night – and she did it with the same focus she had as a player.

“It doesn’t matter to me when we play China or when we play Cuba or when we play Venezuela,” says Lang. “It’s all the same. I try to be concentrated on the game.”

American outside hitter Logan Tom, however, imagines what her coach must have felt when she received the biggest pre-match cheer of all.

“She loves China, so I’m sure she’s torn,” says Tom, who plays her professional volleyball for Dinamo Moscow. “But she also knows she’s our coach, and she’s done a good job of not mixing the two.”