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24 Years After Gold In Atlanta, Amy Chow Is Still The Master of Difficulty

By Blythe Lawrence | May 23, 2020, 8:30 a.m. (ET)

Amy Chow competes at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 on July 28, 1996 in Atlanta.


As a gymnast, Amy Chow didn’t shy away from the big risks, or hesitate to take on the big challenges. 

It was a calculated gamble performing many of the daring skills that became Chow’s calling card in the lead-up to the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996. It was chancy getting back up on the balance beam at the 1996 Olympic trials after bashing her right cheekbone against the leather-covered wooden apparatus on a layout stepout gone awry early in her routine. It took a huge leap of faith in 1999, three years after her last major international competition, to put her life on hold to try and make the 2000 Olympic team. 

All of it paid off for Chow, the first Asian-American gymnast to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in gymnastics. Her eagerness to try new things on uneven bars led her to develop two difficult pirouetting skills that now bear her name in gymnastics’ code of points.

Finishing her beam routine at the 1996 Olympic trials after the painful fall early on provided the final, overwhelming evidence that she could handle the pressures of an Olympic Games. (She was still applying an ice pack to her cheek when the competition ended and she was officially pronounced an Olympian.) Her embrace of tough skills on bars and vault helped earn Chow and her six “Magnificent” Olympic teammates a place in history as they captured the U.S. women’s first Olympic team gold medal in Atlanta.

And despite a 1999 ankle injury requiring surgery that kept her out of full training for several months before the Sydney Games, Chow achieved her goal of becoming a two-time Olympian, partly, she thinks, because her high difficulty routines were still competitive four years later. Her team bronze from Sydney made her, along with Shannon Miller, the only ones from their generation to attain a complete set of Olympic medals.

Sure, there were easier routines Chow could have shown as she rose through the ranks to become one of the U.S.’ most reliable performers, but that wasn’t who she was, she recalls today. Exercises that carried a high degree of difficulty, such as her double-twisting Yurchenko — the most difficult vault performed by any American woman in 1996 and 2000 — and that unusual bar routine “were part of what I enjoyed about gymnastics, and that’s what I wanted to show,” Chow, now 42 and a physician and surgeon in northern California, said in a recent phone interview with TeamUSA.org.

“I didn’t want to go and do easy skills and meet the minimum to get the 10.0 start value,” she added. “For me it was a challenge and it was, I guess, motivation.”

At the West Valley Gymnastics School near San Jose, California, she worked on skills that were harder still, like a handspring Rudi vault and a double-twisting double-back tumbling pass, though those never quite made it out of the training gym. For a young woman who admittedly was none too talkative, she nevertheless managed to convey to coaches Mark Young and Diane Amos that the harder tricks were the ones she preferred.

For many who followed the Mag Seven’s progress, Chow’s status as the first Asian-American to make the U.S. team — and, with her silver on the uneven bars, the first to win an individual medal — turned her into a cultural icon as well. As the U.S. team traveled around the country doing shows in the wake of the triumph of Atlanta, the then 18-year-old met many Asian-American families who gravitated toward her and her gymnastics. The kids identified with her, while their mothers and fathers expressed gratitude for the way she led by example.

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The experience was eye-opening, and remains notable today, as May is recognized as Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month.

“I definitely heard stories from young girls, especially Asians, and also from their parents, saying, ‘You’ve inspired me so much’ and, ‘Thank you so much,’” recalled Chow, whose mom emigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong, while her dad emigrated from Guangzhou, China.

“It’s an honor to hear those kinds of things, because it wasn’t my intention initially. I wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to go out and become the first Asian-American to do this,’ but to have that happen afterwards was really neat.”

Chow credits the time management and discipline she learned as a result of being a high level gymnast to the success she’s obtained outside of it. In a strange way, being an elite gymnast has given her the tools she’s needed to navigate this unprecedented era, where risk has assumed a very different form from what she was used to as a gymnast. 

“It was my identity for so long, and I think it really set me up for whatever has come in my life, including this shelter in place,” said Chow, who has been holding down the fort in her San Francisco-area home with her sons Timmy, 7, and Matty, 5, while her husband, Jason, is at work. “It taught me patience. Not everything comes all at once. You have to work slowly, slowly, slowly, to get where you want to go.”

Her sons, who take gymnastics at a local gym, are “trying to do it at home,” she reported. They also caught a glimpse of their mom during an Olympic replay that aired recently on TV.

“That was the first time that they’d really watched me,” Chow said.

Their reaction? Exclaiming “Mommy’s on TV! Mommy’s on TV!”

“‘Mommy, how’d you do that?’” one of them asked.

“A lot of practice,” Chow responded with a laugh.

Blythe Lawrence has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.