Road to Paris: The 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris are less than a year away, and athletes around the world are gearing up to go for the gold—including AA+PI athletes throughout the United States. Normally we’re all about shirking the unrealistic expectations put on our community to excel, but as we gear up for next year’s summer games, we are here to celebrate the outstanding AA+PI athletes getting ready to compete for their country. Read on to learn more about their road to Paris!
Like many people her age, Leanne Wong is in the midst of her college years, trying to figure out her future.
But the 20-year-old pre-med student, now in her third year at the University of Florida, has a little more than just classes to worry about. She’s also balancing collegiate gymnastics as a Gator, with her career as an elite gymnast whose sights are set on the Paris Olympics in August. And if that weren’t enough, she’s also an entrepreneur and has started her own business, Leanne Wong Bowtique, selling hair bows, gymnastics leotards and t-shirts.
Originally from Overland Park, Kansas, Wong qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 as an alternate. And while she didn’t have a chance to compete then, she has since proven to be an integral part of Team USA—especially in the clutch. The most recent example was at the World Championships in October 2023. Wong filled in at the last second (literally) after a teammate got injured while warming up, and helped the United States win the team gold.
I recently spoke with Wong about her gymnastics journey and transitioning from being an elite to a collegiate athlete (and back again). And as a fellow (former) gymnast, I had fun geeking out with her, and talking about diversity in the sport and how Asian representation has grown since my days in the gym.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Samantha Pak: How did you get started in gymnastics?
Leanne Wong: My dad actually wanted me to do ice skating first, watching Michelle Kwan, so that's what I did at 4 years old. But I just really didn't like going to practices, and falling on the hard ice, and just never really got the hang of it. Then my dad also saw my club gym (Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs, Missouri), just 45 minutes from my house and immediately put me over there.
SP: What was it about gymnastics that you fell in love with?
LW: I've just always loved the challenge that it brings. I always love competing. I have fond memories of competing, and just being in front of an audience. And on the award stand, I'd always be looking for my parents. [laughs]
SP: When did you know you wanted to be elite, to go towards the Olympics?
LW: Honestly, throughout my gymnastics career, I never really knew how far I could go. The group that was above me, a lot of them quit before they reached the highest level. After I started getting to the higher levels, my coach had a meeting and was like, “I think she has some potential to become an elite.” That's when I started thinking about it.
SP: How was it balancing schoolwork and basically a career as a teenager?
LW: It was definitely challenging to balance both school and gymnastics. You wake up in the morning, go to school, and then go straight to the gym all day and then don't get home till like 8 p.m. And that's when you start homework.
I only did core classes in school. I had a lot of online classes also. That's how I started my bow business. I went outside the school district and found a fashion and interior design class. And in that class, one of the projects was to design an outfit and then actually make one of the products. I decided to make the hair bow, and I started wearing it every day.
SP: And how did that bow business take off?
LW: I’d just wear that light pink one every day and I was like, “Wait, why don't I just make more colors to match all my practice and competition leotards?” So then I started wearing one every day to practice and competition. I did have lots of teammates like, “Oh, that's so cute. I want one of the bows.” But I didn't start selling them until 2021, after the Tokyo Olympics. I went to Worlds after that, and then came straight down to the University of Florida. During that winter break was when I started my website and launched the business basically.
SP: You went to Tokyo as an alternate. What was that experience like to be there and almost compete?
LW: Yeah, it was definitely an experience since that Olympic Trials, I did not have a very good first day. I had two falls. So going into day two, I really was like, “Well, that already happened. You have nothing to lose.” On day two, I had the best meet of my career. So that was a good note to end on at the Olympic Trials.
I was just fortunate to be an alternate at that point. I got to travel to the Olympics, and that was cool. But with all of the COVID restrictions and everything, unfortunately, my roommate (another gymnast and alternate) tested positive for COVID, and because the beds were less than four feet apart, I was also quarantined. We actually both just stayed in our hotel rooms quarantined by ourselves.
SP: I'm sorry. That's gotta suck.
LW: Everything happens for a reason. But it also gave me time to just think about what I wanted to do afterwards. That's when I decided, “Okay my career is not going to end here in quarantine.” I decided I was gonna go to the World Championships at the end of that year, because I had never been. I wanted to experience it. I won one of my first two world medals. So that was really exciting.
SP: And now, how is it balancing the elite training, with the college training, and also balancing life as a college student?
LW: It’s definitely a lot to balance but every year has looked a little different. My freshman year, I didn't really know what I wanted to do after that college season. I definitely kept college and elite a little bit separate.
This last year, it was different. I went to worlds with my Florida coaches. Stayed in Florida to train all summer for Classics, (U.S.) Championships and Worlds. I made that decision because I also have academic goals. I had some classes that I had to take in person, so I really couldn't go home. So I'm like, “Okay, I'm just gonna make it work.” And I think it went well. I was really happy to be able to make my third Worlds team and for the experience.
SP: And you played a pretty big role after Joscelyn (Roberson) got injured. You stepped up into the events that you weren't planning on competing.
LW: For the team final, I was only supposed to do beam. In the back gym, we all warmed up. So I did warm up for events. But then I went out on the competition floor and the three girls were warming up their vaults, I was just standing there, you know, ready to cheer them on. And then (Joscelyn) took an out-of-character landing and then she couldn’t get up. So I’m just like, “Okay, is she gonna get up? I don't know.” Then, within a few seconds they were like “Take off your stuff.” So I'm running, throwing off my jacket, my socks and trying to get my things all ready and put together, and then I'm going down the vault runway. It was definitely a little hectic and chaotic.
SP: One thing I've noticed (in gymnastics) is that there has been a shift. People are more supportive of each other—even across the countries, no matter who they represent. My “team” was The Magnificent Seven, the ’96 girls, and I could never imagine them cheering on Russia and Romania. What do you think has contributed to that?
LW: I definitely think gymnastics has changed in the U.S. Different people in the leadership roles. Like Alicia (Sacramone) and Chellsie (Memmel), they've been in our positions—
SP: As former gymnasts.
LW: Yeah. They know exactly how it was like when they were competing. They've definitely helped make it a little more fun. Being a little more relaxed, and being a top country influences others as well. There's just more interaction between athletes from different countries now. And also a lot of girls in the U.S. are competing for different countries. So there's relationships there also.
SP: Also, you've got older gymnasts. Before, once you turn 18, 19, you were done. If you're 20, you're “old.” Now, you've got you, Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey. You guys are going to college and you're coming back. And I see some of that team mentality of cheering everybody on has crossed over to elite gymnastics.
LW: Yeah, I also think so. Why shouldn’t elite gymnastics be like college gymnastics? I definitely think the teams are getting a little bit older. It’s not just a bunch of young girls, but there is a mix. Simone (Biles), she's obviously had like 30 world medals and been to two Olympics. So I still feel like a young one because she's so experienced. But it's cool to learn from experienced gymnasts who have been to those big meets multiple times.
SP: For college gymnastics, you compete almost every week. How has that experience, in terms of always being on the floor competing so much, affected you in elite competitions?
LW: In elite you only have maybe five competitions a year. So it's very different that way. And in college gymnastics, skills are easier but I think that just going out and competing, being in front of an audience, and learning how to handle the pressure has been beneficial for me in elite gymnastics.
SP: Growing up, the only Asian gymnast I had to look up to was Amy Chow. Were there any Asian gymnasts that you looked up to?
LW: Definitely Amy Chow. I did remember seeing some pictures and videos of her. I do not remember a lot of Asian gymnasts. But the numbers have grown. Especially in my time as an elite gymnast, I have seen a lot of Asian gymnasts.
SP: The sport in general, at least in the U.S., has become more diverse. There's a lot more gymnasts of color, which I've been very happy to see.
LW: Yeah, there's definitely more diversity in the sport. Also for me, it's been nice to have a diverse team here, in Florida. Gymnastics is definitely one of the most diverse sports here.
SP: As a college athlete, do you have a lot of interaction with other athletes, non gymnasts?
LW: Yeah, I do have some interaction with other sports. We have a nice dining hall facility and there’s a pool and games and stuff. So that's a nice area where a lot of athletes like to hang out. It’s nice to meet new athletes there and then go to their games and tournaments and support them. That's always fun.
SP: We talked about your bowtique. What are some other things you like to do outside of gymnastics?
LW: Honestly, a lot of it's just school and gymnasts. Those are the priorities. And then my business definitely is one of the biggest things because all the bows are handmade. My mom has actually done a lot of manufacturing for me. I'm really grateful for what she's been able to do. I don't only sell bows. I expanded it to leotards. I design all the leos myself. So that's been a process. And just working with customers, helping them match bows to their leos and also, I started making t-shirts. And now I have to keep them in my apartment dorm room. [laughs]
SP: You’ve got a few years, but is this something you think you'll do once you retire from the sport?
LW: I’m not really sure. I'm gonna see how life goes and see where the direction takes me because in college, I'm actually doing pre-med. It'd be cool to do both medicine and business.
Published on February 7, 2024
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.