Looking to catch up on some vintage Zmeskal after watching her coach some great rising stars at the 2013 US National Championships, I decided to watch some of her old competitions that I either hadn’t caught when I was younger, or had forgotten about. The one that came to mind was the 1991 American Cup, which was in my home city of Orlando, in the arena I graduated in, and competed in when I was a gymnast at Brown’s Gymnastics.
For a spectator in the stands 22 years ago, it was without doubt, Kim and Betty Okino who were the the story. But watching this time around, there was another story. An unexpected and amazing story. There, near minute 17. was a young Chris Waller, the eventual coach of Mohini Bhardwaj and Jordyn Wieber, and the rumored new coach of 2012 Olympic All Around Champ Gabby Douglas. Douglas left behind the man who made her a champion, Liang Ziao, or as he’s better known in the gymnastics world “Chow”, earlier this month in sudden, dramatic, quite befuddling fashion. She headed to LA, where it’s believed Waller will coach her, leaving Chow and his wife noticeably blindsided.
There in 1991 in the Orlando “O”-Rena, Chris Waller performed a Parallel Bar routine. As he dismounted and walked away to receive his score the camera panned to the next man getting ready to go up on the P-Bars, Liang Ziao. The broadcast then cut away to a fluff piece about the rising Chinese sports dynasty, with a focus on Ziao. When the camera returned to the action, all I could think of was that these two men who didn’t speak the same language, live in the same country, or know each other at all, would be inextricably linked 22 years later. Instead of competing back to back, they would be training the same athlete back to back, in the most unlikely fashion.
Waller went on to finish second in the competition, Chow would fall twice on the high bar and down to the bottom of the standings. Years later, it would be Chow who would walk away with the highest prize in coaching and Waller who would again be in second position, waiting in the wings for a golden opportunity with Douglas—A whole new competition, in a much bigger arena, with more cameras than ever before. Both Chow and Waller are coaches I not only like, but respect immensely, I see them as coaches far more than I see them or remember them as athletes (Unlike Valeri Liukin who I still distinctly remember as an athlete). Getting the chance to see them compete, in a line-up back to back, was like watching a cool, strange, gymnastics alternate universe that reminded me the stories continue long after the competitions end and the cameras stop rolling.
Watching the competition made me wish for the power to stop the video, pause time, walk into that arena, straight over the parallel bars and whisper to both of them “You won’t believe how this story ends.”
Watch the 1991 American Cup here, Thanks to USA Gymnastics YouTube catalog of past domestic competitions.