Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2008 | Features

Iowa and the Olympics

By Shelbi Thomas
A University of Iowa student, three alumni, and a former coach recall their greatest moments from the world's greatest sporting event.

Mike Zadick, 04BS

The international wrestling community told Mike Zadick he wasn't an Olympian. His gut told him otherwise.

Never mind that the United States failed four times to qualify for the Olympics in his weight class. Never mind that he didn't receive any of the seven wild card berths to the tournament. Never mind that every wrestler at the Games had an alternate waiting in the wings.

The staggering odds against a 2008 Olympic nod didn't faze Zadick. If he felt like an Olympian, he would continue to train like one—and that meant boarding a plane to Beijing.

USA Wrestling officials were willing to bet on Zadick, sending him and his training partner (brother, Bill) to China in the hope of a miracle. Zadick's father and uncle also threw the dice, each buying a $5,000 plane ticket to Beijing with no guarantee that the Montana native would ever see time on the mat.

Zadick practiced with the U.S. national team leading up to the Games, but he couldn't stay with the rest of the athletes in the Olympic Village. He missed the adoring crowds at the opening ceremony, the pride of wearing the Team USA uniform, and the confidence boost that came with being a part of the athletic elite. Zadick tried not to care. After all, he wasn't in Beijing for the fun, but to claim what he knew to be his destiny.

Just as Zadick's hopes began to fade, destiny stepped in.

A Bulgarian wrestler injured his Achilles tendon playing basketball in the Olympic Village, forcing him out of the Games. The Bulgarian backup broke a rib in a car accident on the way to the plane bound for Beijing. With Bulgaria out of the competition, America was back in. And Zadick, the 132-pound champion at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, was right there in China.

The bizarre set of events confirmed what Zadick had known ever since he entertained dreams of Olympic gold as a six-year-old watching Dan Gable's 1984 USA wrestling team—he deserved a place on the world stage. He quickly made weight to compete the next day.

When he faced his first competitor, though, perhaps the stress and uncertainty of the previous few months took over. Zadick lost two matches. The gold medal he'd long imagined around his neck instead adorned an athlete he'd beaten before—Russian wrestler Mavlet Batirov. "It just wasn't me," he says of his performance. "I have no excuses."

Still, Zadick, 04BS, hasn't abandoned his dream; he feels he's only improving and plans to try again in the next Olympics. "If I'm too old and going downhill, I want someone to slap me upside the head and tell me," says the 30-year-old UI volunteer assistant wrestling coach.

Zadick believes this year's upheaval will only strengthen him for 2012, where he expects nothing less than first place. "I'd be just as embarrassed if I had won the bronze this year," he says. "I didn't come to the Olympics for the experience. I came for the gold medal."

Liang Chow

Shawn Johnson took a deep breath, flashed her trademark smile, and launched into her final crack at Olympic gold. The 16-year-old gymnast flipped effortlessly atop a four-inch-wide balance beam before landing the dismount. With that flawless performance, Johnson leaped into the hearts of gymnastics fans worldwide—and then into the arms of her unassuming Chinese-American coach.

The world may have embraced Johnson as the darling of the 2008 Summer Olympics, but it was Liang Chow who helped bring the golden girl to her gold medal. Just before the performance, Johnson's nerves spilled into her warm-up routines. Her coach provided a pointed pep talk that lifted her out of her funk and onto the medal stand.

It was a proud moment for Johnson, an Iowa native, and Chow, a former Chinese national team co-captain who'd traveled a long road to the Hawkeye State.

Before an injury in 1991 forced his retirement from the sport that had defined his life since the age of five, Chow had won more than 30 international gold medals, introduced a challenging new routine to parallel bar competitions, and received offers of a full-ride scholarship and coaching position at Iowa. At 23 years old, he faced a difficult choice: he could either continue his privileged lifestyle as the Chinese national team's coach, or he could leave behind everything he'd ever known to take up the UI's standing offer. Chow chose Iowa.

Although he spoke no English when he first arrived in America, he used gestures to instruct the Hawkeye gymnasts—including five who made the U.S. national team. "It was pretty tough with the culture shock," says Chow, who spent eight years as a UI assistant gymnastics coach, "but I really cherished that time at Iowa."

In 1998, he left the university to start Chow's Gymnastics and Dance Institute in West Des Moines. The gym had only been open for three months when Johnson—then a six-year-old with boundless energy and an Olympic-sized talent—arrived at his doorstep. "She walked in the door and jumped on the bar," recalls her coach. "It was like she found a home for herself."

In a sport often stereotyped for its unforgiving training regimens, Chow treats Johnson more like a daughter, motivating her in a caring but firm way. Aiming to make Johnson a champion on and off the gym floor, Chow limits her to a 25-hour regimen instead of the usual 40-hour week of intensive training that most top gymnasts endure. That holistic approach seems to work well for the straight-A student. In 2007, USA Gymnastics named Johnson and Chow National Athlete and Coach of the Year.

By then, Johnson was the world's leading gymnast. She was also her coach's ticket back to China for the first time in 13 years. Chow beamed with pride as his hometown crowd watched Johnson win silver medals in the individual all-around, team, and floor exercise competitions, and the gold medal for the balance beam.

For Johnson—who has worn the Chinese characters of Chow's name on her leotard in past competitions—nothing could be more satisfying than showing China what its gymnastics program had produced in Chow. All together, the U.S. women's team that Chow headed received eight medals—the most it had brought home in 24 years.

After the Games, an ecstatic crowd of more than 7,000 people gathered in Des Moines to congratulate the gracious all-American girl and her coach. "When competing for China, [the glory] was for myself," says Chow. "This time, [it was for Shawn and] the U.S. women's team."

Emily Doolittle

As soon as the ball stopped bouncing, the questions started flying. Emily Doolittle's pen raced while she asked the world's best tennis players about their performances in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Only a white metal gate separated the UI senior and a mob of quote-thirsty reporters from racquet royalty.

Doolittle's brush with top international talents was made possible through the Iowa Olympic Ambassador Project, which sent 24 UI students to China this past June to serve as media volunteers for the Olympic News Service—known as the "AP of the Olympics." "So many people dream of either competing in or attending the Games," says Doolittle. "I'm not an athlete, but I had the rare opportunity to be part of the production."

Miles from familiarity, Doolittle adjusted to chopsticks, communication difficulties, and Beijing's infamous smog. Everywhere she turned, Chinese people would take her photo, touch her blonde hair, and ask about college life in the United States.

Each morning, Doolittle passed through tight security checkpoints to enter the "mixed zone" where Olympic athletes and journalists meet. Recorder in hand, the Cedar Rapids native resisted the urge to drool over Rafael Nadal or ask Serena Williams for an autograph. After a frenzy of questions, she'd dash back to the news service, where her "flash quotes" would appear in media stories worldwide.

When she wasn't working, Doolittle witnessed history. She admitted to getting goosebumps at the opening ceremonies just outside the Bird's Nest stadium, laughed at the antics of the mischievous Olympic mascots called Fuwa, and waited three hours to see Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt flash by in his record-breaking 100-meter dash.

Just before her adventure ended, Doolittle had an unexpected close encounter with a superstar athlete. Fresh from her gold medal win, Venus Williams stopped by the Olympic News Service office. "We were trying hard not to let our jaws drop," says Doolittle, who describes the tennis player as "poised, yet surprisingly shy."

Trading buttons is an Olympic tradition, so the Iowa group presented Williams with a pin of the Old Capitol dome. Doolittle may not be there to personally represent the UI at the 2012 Summer Games, but she plans to look for the memento of her alma mater carried by a champion.

Tom Ecker, 57BA

Most people count themselves lucky if they attend one Olympics. Consider Tom Ecker seven times lucky.

The retired Cedar Rapids school administrator has traveled to seven of the last 11 Summer Games, beginning in 1968 when he helped coach the Swedish track and field team. Since then, the tour guide and historian has dazzled Olympic travelers with his insider's perspective and vast knowledge of the Games.

The ancient athletic tradition has fascinated Ecker ever since he was a 13-year-old collecting photographs and newspaper clippings of 1948 Olympic decathlete Bob Mathias. Inspired by that young gold medalist, Ecker always thought he'd go to the Olympics as a track athlete. Instead, his first invitation came as a coach.

Although he was a Big Ten track champion at Iowa, Ecker, 57BA, drew the attention of the Swedes—and the international community—as a track and field expert who revealed how understanding the biomechanics behind sports can give athletes an advantage. He used those principles to help train the Swedes in the two years leading up to the 1968 Games.

Ecker describes the Mexico City Games as the "most volatile Olympics of all time." The high altitude knocked the air out of distance runners, the U.S. winners of the 200-meter dash were reprimanded after pumping their fists in a Black Panther salute, and the Mexican army opened fire on hundreds of student protesters.

While those 1968 Olympics may have been tense, the Games could have ended forever in 1972 when Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the Olympic Village in Munich and murdered 11 Israeli athletes. "If not for Avery Brundage [the head of the Olympic Committee at that time], the Games wouldn't be around today," says Ecker, who hosted more than 200 travelers on an Athletic Journal magazine tour that year. "The world would've lost faith in the Olympics."

Ecker's belief in the cooperative spirit of the Games has been restored with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which he calls the "most spectacular Games I've ever seen in my life or read about in the history books." China spent more than $100 million on the opening ceremonies alone, which featured more than 15,000 performers in a show of unprecedented pageantry. Ecker was also impressed with how athletes, including Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and American swimmer Michael Phelps, stretched the limits of human achievement to set 43 new world records.

Author of 18 books, including one about Olympic facts and fables, Ecker travels all over the world to research and lecture on the Games. Despite political turmoil over the years, he believes the friendly competition ultimately brings nations together. Ecker, who disapproved of President Jimmy Carter's decision to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow, even witnessed Russian and American athletes partying together in the midst of the Cold War.

"At the Olympics," he says, "you'll find peace among people even when their nations are at odds."

Bob Bowlsby, 78MA

As fireworks transformed the Beijing night sky into a dazzling kaleidoscope of color, thousands of spectators cheered in celebration of the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

For Bob Bowlsby, the magnificent ceremony marked the end of a seven-year effort.

Bowlsby, 78MA, former athletic director for the UI and current athletic director at Stanford University, served first as a member of the NCAA's Olympic Sports Liaison Committee and then as a member of the United States Olympic Committee's (USOC) 11-member volunteer board.

Prior to the Beijing Games, Bowlsby met five times a year with the USOC to help the committee's executive staff coordinate America's contribution to the Olympics: managing the finances for the U.S. teams, overseeing training centers where aspiring athletes practice, and promoting the Olympics through sponsorships and the media. He and other committee members also met President George W. Bush during a dinner this past summer at the White House and then at a reception at the U.S. Embassy in China.

With all the planning finally completed, Bowlsby (pictured above with his wife, Candy) could relax in Beijing and enjoy the fruits of his labor. He cheered on the U.S. gymnastics, swimming, basketball, and baseball teams, and he waited seven hours in sultry weather to watch the opening ceremonies. "As spectacular as they were on TV," he says, "they were even more so in person."

As this year's events fade into history, Bowlsby is already helping to plan for the future. He'll serve on the USOC board at least through 2010, helping Chicago to lobby as a possible host for the 2016 Olympics.

Above all, Bowlsby hopes the USOC will serve as a guardian of Olympic ideals such as peace, understanding, dignity, fair play, and respect for others. "I don't think the Olympics always live up to their ideals," he says, citing past violence and athletes' drug use at the Games. "But, we still ought to try."