Sports

A family's test to find a home

At 15, gymnast Ivana Hong has a daunting task this weekend.

She's trying to make the United States Olympic Team that will compete in her ancestral homeland, China.

Hong, from Blue Springs, Mo., gets her chance in the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials, which open Thursday with men's competition and Friday for the women. The trials, at Philadelphia, wrap up Saturday and Sunday.

The U.S. women are defending Olympic silver-medalists. Team USA is the reigning world champion.

But the test before Hong pales in comparison to how her parents got her to this point.

Ivana's mother, Michelle, remembers when she was 15.

She was a “boat person,” fleeing Vietnam in 1976.

Her family had come to Vietnam at the turn of the 20th century. Michelle's great grandfather was a government worker in China. He wanted his son to follow suit.

At 17, Michelle's grandfather asked to visit France, a sea journey that took three weeks. He did not return until he was 35. Fluent in French and a convert to Catholicism, he eventually resettled in Vietnam.

When Saigon fell, Michelle's father lived only because he was a businessman, not a soldier. Still, Communist military made it a daily routine to interrogate him at all hours. “During dinner, anytime during the night or day; 2 o'clock in the morning, and they come in,” Michelle said. “If they want him to go, he had to leave with them.”

For 13 months and one day, that is how the family lived. Constant fear, little sleep. No questions. Just follow orders.

Finally, the family fled, hoping to reach Hong Kong.

But then a storm hit. A 30-foot boat crammed with 94 people left no room to move. To save fuel, two such boats were tied together.

“The water was like at my hand touch, where I was sitting,” Michelle said. “And we ran out of provisions and gasoline and everything. We were about to die of starvation anyway without being hot and without a storm.”

Michelle tried to catch wave skips in an empty can. Women cried. Men desperately worked to cut the ropes that held the two boats together, fearing a collision.

Having survived the night, the refugees were briefly held captive by fishermen, who apparently were taking orders from the Communists.

Somehow the armed fishermen were overcome, and Michelle's boat made it to Thailand. After a month, her family was approved to join an aunt who was living in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Michelle met her husband, whose Americanized name is Mike, in America. Mike left Vietnam before the fall of Saigon. However, his family of 12 stayed behind. When the end came, his parents split the family, sending five on an escape trip. The five were never heard from again.

Even now, Michelle and Mike don't have things easy.

Mike is in the computer field, specializing in telesurveillance security. With no job open in the Blue Springs (Kansas City) area, Mike works in California. Michelle tends to four children, ages 6-17, in Missouri. All to enable the children, particularly Ivana, who is coached by Chinese-American Al Fong.

How does Ivana's life at 15 compare to Michelle's at 15?

“Much better, even though it's not that easy,” Michelle said. “She gets up and goes to school at 6:45 in the morning and doesn't get home until 7:30 at night. So between full-time school and gymnastics, and all kinds of callouses and bleeding and pains and sores and injuries ... she has never missed one day of gym. That's what is special about her. She has never asked me, ‘Mom, can I stay home today?' ”

Perhaps because her parents have taught her how to seize opportunity.

Other names to watch: Shawn Johnson is reigning gold-medalist in the World Championships all-around. Nastia Liukin is the Worlds gold-medalist on balance beam. Alicia Sacramone also medaled at Worlds, where the U.S. team was completed with Hong, Samantha Peszek, Bridget Sloan and Shayla Worley.

Other Trials qualifiers: Jana Bieger, Mackenzie Caquatto, Olivia Courtney, Alaina Johnson, Mattie Larson, Corrie Lothrop, Chellsie Memmel, Randy Stageberg, Chelsea Davis, Darling Hill, Britney Ranzy and Amber Trani.

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