Amy Chow was the first Asian American gymnast to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in gymnastics. She was part of the 96 U.S. Olympic Team’s “Magnificent Seven” who later took home the gold in Atlanta that year, which also made her the first Asian American woman to win an Olympic medal in gymnastics.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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