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Olympic Iowans (Feature)

posted on August 7, 2008 at 8:32 PM

The Iowa Journal focuses on what it takes to compete in the Olympics with first-hand accounts from several Iowans who are competing this year.

Iowans featured will be gymnast Shawn Johnson, track hurdler Lolo Jones, and wrestler Doug Schwab.

Lolo Jones is the 2008 World Indoor Champion and USA Indoor Champion from Des Moines.

Wrestler Doug Schwab, an assistant coach at the University of Iowa, is a three-time All-American and 1999 NCAA champion for the Hawkeyes who grew up in Osage.

Shawn Johnson of West Des Moines, is the 2007 World Champion Gymnast.

The Iowa Journal will explore what motivates Johnson, Jones and Schwab to push themselves; what it means to them to go to the Olympics; and how they feel about the support they have had. Our cameras join the athletes in training and meet their coaches, who have their own stories to tell. And we’ll learn how these top athletes are giving back to others.

Iowa natives, track hurdler Lolo Jones, wrestler Doug Schwab and gymnast Shawn Johnson prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They have been training for this all of their lives.

Lolo Jones: It was the Atlanta Olympics, I was in middle school, I was just coming back from a track practice and I remember watching the hurdlers that were at the Olympics and thinking how incredible they were and how were they able to run so fast over these hurdles. And I was just thinking how do I get there? How can I be like them?

Doug Schwab: I knew that I probably wasn't going to be a big kid so maybe football was out, basketball was out a little bit but wrestling you can be a 103-pounder and you can still be a hero.

Shawn Johnson: I think every child wants to go to the Olympics but I actually thought I could see myself going when I was probably eleven years old. And it probably wasn't until then that I actually really started wanting to get to that top level and thinking I actually could.

Beijing is half a world away and Iowa's 2008 Olympic contenders have already traveled a great distance just to qualify. What does it take to be one of the best in the world? The Olympic Experience on The Iowa Journal.

Lolo Jones: I've already achieved what it's going to take to be on that medal stand so I have to just stay healthy, fit and just keep my rhythm.

Lolo Jones ran the 100 meter hurdles faster than any American in history to qualify for her first Olympic games. Only one person in the world has ever run faster.

Lolo Jones: Actually a lot of times when I run the hurdles are coming up so fast that I don't even see them. I'm going out on a prayer like just go. So, we're covering ten hurdles in twelve seconds to that's leaving us less than a second for each hurdle and it's just a rhythm that you learn over years.

Her wind-aided time of 12.29 seconds, a personal best, blew away the rest of the field. But Lolo, at age 26, knows what it feels like to come from behind.

Lolo Jones: Four years ago I didn't even make the finals to be at the Olympic trials. I can't believe that I almost thought about quitting. I just received my economics degree and it was just like I reached that fork in the road. It was like well I can easily go give up my dream and go get a 9-5 and start a life or I can take this harder path. I'm not going to get paid, I don't know when I'll get paid, I don't know if I even can succeed at this dream. And I chose my dream and when I crossed that line and my dream became a reality it was just crazy.

Lolo trains at Louisiana State University where she ran in college from 2001-2004. She was recruited to run at LSU following an illustrious Iowa high school track career. Her coach for the past eight years is LSU head track and field coach, Dennis Shaver.

Dennis Shaver: As she became more powerful, as she became faster in her 100-meter races it created new obstacles for us in hurdling, the additional speed that she had accumulated and then being able to manage the speed as you're traveling just the three strides between each hurdle.

The 2008 World Indoor champion and USA Indoor champion is a Des Moines native. Lolo added setting a Drake Relay meet record to her list of achievements when she won the 100-meter hurdles at the event this past spring.

Lolo Jones: I remember my first experience with track was actually the Drake Relays. They have the little elementary relay in the middle and that was the first time that I was actually at a track meet and I ran and just the adrenaline as a kid just stuck with me and it was life changing for me.

Roosevelt High School in Des Moines is where Lolo first emerged as a track star. She was inspired by two Roosevelt runners who came before her, Natasha Kaiser-Brown, 1992 Olympic silver medalist and head track and field coach at Drake University and Kim Carson, seven time all-American and 1996 National Champion. Kim is Lolo's travel coach and advisor. Lolo is inspiring the next generation at Roosevelt High School. While in Des Moines for the Drake Relays Lolo visited the school surprising the girls track team with gifts including a pair of new running shoes for each member of the team. She also gave the team a check for $3000. It will be used to repair the track and buy indoor practice hurdles. Lolo knows what it is to not have what you need.

Lolo Jones: I didn't have money for spikes when I was growing up so I would get like donated spikes. Maybe hit that one person who was like me back in the day who couldn't afford a pair of shoes.

Lolo overcame any hardships. She remembers her high school days fondly.

Lolo Jones: My eyes are watering. I don't know if it's the memories or what.

Kim Carson: Just being able to see her grow into the fine young lady that she is, is probably better than anything that she could ever do on the track.

Chelsea Maxey: She really is one of us, she came from us. Even though we weren't here to run with her she's out doing her thing representing Iowa.

Brianne Burns: She didn't just talk about all the things that she had succeeded in, she talked about what it took to get her to where she's at.

Lolo Jones: A lot of things drive me but the main thing is failure and not making my first Olympic team. Picking myself up off the ground, getting back on the track and re-trying, that was the hardest thing in the world for me to do. What if I would have stopped before I obtained my dreams? Where would my life be now? So I'm just so thankful that I went through the hardships because now I can appreciate my victory so much more.

Doug Schwab: I've got to be the best I've been, sharpest mentally, physically, everything.

Doug Schwab's wrestling ethic is to work hard and keep working. His gritty determination earned him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in freestyle wrestling at 145.5 pounds. The 31-year-old is an assistant coach at the University of Iowa where he wrestled in college. A three-time All-American and 1999 NCAA champion for the Hawkeyes, Doug proudly wears the back and gold.

Doug Schwab: I have an Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt that I wear. I figure wherever I am in the world, whomever I'm wrestling that I have the whole state of Iowa behind me and I'll take the state of Iowa against the rest of the world.

Doug will take on the best in the world in Beijing. Helping him prepare for that quest are two gold medal Olympic champions, former Hawkeye head coach and wrestling legend Dan Gable and Gable's former assistant, current Hawkeye head coach, Tom Brands.

Dan Gable: International Olympic competition, you have to be ready to wrestle in the most hostile environment in the furthest point of the world away from you, your home and when you're ready for that then everything else is pretty easy.

Tom Brands: More than anything you're talking about that commitment level that is basically more than your opponent can handle.

Doug Schwab: I've been lucky enough to be around Gable and Tom Brands, Olympic champs. If they tell you to run through the wall you want to try to run through the wall for them.

Continuing the legacy matters to Doug. Not only does he help coach the Iowa team, he also trains younger wrestlers at the University's summer workshops. Doug's passion for the sport was ignited at an early age. He grew up in Osage, a northern Iowa town with a long-standing reputation for producing great wrestlers. The youngest of four, Doug attended his first wrestling meet before he was six-months-old.

Doug Schwab: What drew me into wrestling was my two older brothers, Mark and Mike. There's a big age gap between us. Mike is twelve years older and Mark is ten years older and they both wrestled and I grew up around it.

In the late 1980s, Doug's brother Mark was a top international wrestler with promising Olympic prospects. Serious complications from a knee injury cut his wrestling career short preventing him from achieving those dreams.

Doug Schwab: That's something that has really clicked with me in the last couple of years, it's like this is your opportunity, you have to make the most of it because you don't know what tomorrow is going to bring, it's not guaranteed. There was four or five years in there where things didn't go my way but sometimes you don't know how close you are to turning the corner. It might come tomorrow but it might not come for another six months, it might not come for another two years. But when you stick to it, you do the work, you're going to be paid.

Doug celebrated his win at the Olympic trials with his wife and son. The high standards he sets for himself on the mat have become the philosophy he lives by.

Doug Schwab: Success isn't a part-time thing. It's an all the time thing. It's a lot of work and in turn it's belief in that work. I'm always trying to control the things I can control. I can't control the referee. What I can control though is my effort and my attitude in everything that I do. Even if I would have never made the Olympics I know that I'm a better person for having wrestled.

Doug will go to the Olympics with the well wishes of friends and fans who have donated money to help send his family to Beijing so they can cheer him on at the games. That includes Doug's brother Mark, whose own wrestling career was cut short.

Doug Schwab: I have the opportunity to realize one of my dreams and it's like a fury, like just a fire that's building up inside that just when I step out there I'm just ready to let it all out.

Shawn Johnson: You can have the best and most talented body and strength and not have the mental capacity for it and you wouldn't be able to go anywhere.

World champion gymnast Shawn Johnson's seemingly unshakable focus, explosive height and rock solid landings have earned her gold at major international competitions and a first-place berth to Beijing. At the age of sixteen she is driven and stands up to daunting pressures.

Shawn Johnson: They call us the survivors of our sport just because it really pushes you to your physical and mental limit.

Shawn was born with a natural talent for gymnastics that has been carefully nurtured by her coaches.

Liang Chow: She is a very talented kid. She is strong. And also she takes corrections really well.

Liwen Zhuang: I think the reason she is doing so well right now is because she has a great foundation from her very low level when she's a tiny seven-years-old and she started doing very well in the competition.

Shawn Johnson: Each year I progressed one level and finally it came down to wanting to go to the Olympics.

Shawn's coaches, the husband and wife team of Liang Chow and Liwen Zhuang, are natives of Beijing. The couple met in the late 1980s when they were both gymnasts on the Chinese National Team. Chow and Li will return to Beijing for the games. In addition to coaching Shawn, Chow has been named head coach for the U.S. women's gymnastics team.

Liang Chow: I started my gymnastics career when I was five. I was very proud of my first junior national champion, my first real gold medal when I was thirteen.

Chow won more than 30 international gold medals before a leg injury led to his retirement in 1991 at the age of 23. Before Chow's rise to prominence on the Chinese team, Tom Dunn, head men's gymnastics coach at the University of Iowa, had tried to recruit Chow to be a Hawkeye.

Tom Dunn: He had a family friend that was at the University of Iowa and she brought a videotape for me to watch and he was interested in coming to Iowa and after I saw the tape I was very interested in having him join our team.

It was not gymnastics but a scholarship to study English that first brought Chow to the state in 1991. He became an assistant gymnastics coach at the University of Iowa in 1993. Chow and Li moved from Iowa City to West Des Moines in 1998 to open Chow's Gymnastics and Dance Institute.

Liang Chow: We are trying to create opportunities for all kids, building their confidence, teamwork, flexibility, strength, all together it's an entire package. It's not like we're only teaching the top elite world class gymnasts.

Chow and Li's knowledge and experience have enhanced Shawn's talent and drive. The result is a gold medal contender.

Shawn Johnson: It's hard because they're pushing you to your physical limit just trying to make you good enough to go to the Olympics. Your coaches set due dates for you for certain skills and you have to learn to concentrate and set your focus on what you want and work hard for that certain goal.

Shawn is one of the only gymnasts in the world to perform at the highest level of difficulty in several events giving her a possible scoring advantage at the Olympics.

Shawn Johnson: You just learn one more flip or one more twist until I ended up doing two twists and two flips which is kind of scary but it's just one step at a time. You do like twenty skills in a row like on tumble track or a trampoline and it teaches you to teach your mind where you are and I think that transfers over to the balance beam. I don't see how I'm flipping or twisting and still landing on it. I definitely get nervous. I get out there and I've got butterflies and all that. But I think when I get nervous it helps me, it gets my adrenaline going. I try to go out and have fun. That kind of centers everything. Just having fun is the same thing that I do in practice and with my teammates so it helps me stay normal. I think to myself this is no different than practice and I guess go out and do that one more routine and try to make it perfect.


Tags: gymnastics Iowa Olympics sports wrestling


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