Over a decade ago in China, Xiao Yuan was a coach for the Chinese National men’s gymnastics team. Li Xiaoshuang, one of China’s most famous gymnasts, introduced the coach to a quiet, young boy as prospective student.
No one, not even Li, thought the boy would amount to much. He had bad body lines and many bad habits, both of which boded poorly for his future in international competition.
But Xiao, now an assistant coach at Michigan, gave him a shot.
And this past summer, Xiao’s former pupil, Yang Wei, won the all-around gold medal at the Olympics. Another of his former gymnasts, Oklahoma’s Jonathan Horton, led the U.S. gymnasts to a surprise bronze medal in the team competition while winning an individual silver on the high bar.
So how did Xiao end up with the Wolverines?
A coach from the beginning
Xiao got his start in gymnastics at 10 years old, and just a few years later, his instructors were already speculating on his future as a coach.
“My coach said, ‘We know, Xiao, maybe you’re not a good gymnast, but you’re a good coach,’ ” Xiao said. “They (knew) I was training more with my brain than my body.”
Xiao wasn’t a bad gymnast, by any means. In fact, he won his regional high bar championship. But competing against the likes of Li Ning, the gymnast who lit the Olympic torch for the 2008 Beijing Games, and Tong Fei, who invented the pommel horse skill that now bears his name, Xiao knew his future wasn’t in competing for the Chinese National Team.
When he retired from competition in his mid-twenties, a coaching opportunity quickly lured Xiao to stay in gymnastics. Both the men’s and women’s teams from his province competed for his services, and Xiao took a job with the men’s team.
Then, in 1994, a coaching position opened up with the Chinese National Team. Until 1999, he coached some of the top gymnasts in the world, developing stars like Yang Wei and Xing Aowei. In 1997, he even earned a Lifetime Achievement award.
Xiao met current United States head coach Kevin Mazeika at a high-level junior meet in Japan, and the two quickly developed a rapport. And when Mazeika eventually offered Xiao a job, Xiao, already thinking about leaving China, jumped at the chance.
“I just wanted to find a different life,” Xiao said. “The U.S. was my first choice.”
In 1999, Xiao moved with his family to Houston to coach for Mazeika at the Houston Gymnastics Academy. But Xiao, who calls himself an “education guy,” wanted to coach at the college level, which he believed would be similar to coaching the Chinese National Team.
And within less than a year, Oklahoma came calling.
Strengthening the Sooners
In 2000, Oklahoma coach Mark Williams was searching for a replacement for his first assistant coach. Williams had just taken over the program, and started to revamp, a year before.
Convincing Xiao to come to Norman wasn’t hard.
But there was one major obstacle — Xiao struggled with speaking English. So Williams set up English classes for him and arranged for an interpreter to come to the gym a few times a week to make sure they were on the same page.
Xiao, along with Williams, played a crucial role in changing the attitude that pervaded the Oklahoma gymnastics program.
“At times, I think the previous head coach had allowed for the better athletes to sometimes do less because they were better and could talk him into it,” Williams said. “I just felt like if it was going to be a team, the whole team would do the same things.”
With the addition of Xiao and an Olympic hopeful, Guard Young, to the coaching staff, changes began happening fast.
Xiao provided technical expertise that neither of the other coaches possessed and helped devise a tough new training program based on his experiences. A rookie coach might not have gotten away with administering the strenuous workouts, but Xiao’s track record convinced the gymnasts to give it a try.
The results spoke for themselves. From 2001-2005, Oklahoma won three national titles. And under Xiao’s tutelage, Guard Young realized his goal of making the 2004 Olympic team.
“I helped Guard make his dream, be an Olympian like his father,” Xiao said. “I’ve been a part of his life in that moment. I think that’s a great thing (from) Oklahoma, the best moment.”
Coming to Ann Arbor
After Oklahoma won the NCAA Championship in 2005, Xiao was ready to move on.
He’d become friendly with Michigan coach Kurt Golder through competitions, and often went out to dinner with him when the Wolverines came to Norman for a meet.
Golder had an opening for the 2005-06 season, and at Michigan, Xiao would get to try to build a team up to the championship level again.
“Sometimes it’s more exciting to be building a program to that level than trying to maintain it,” Williams said. “It just got to be a time where it seemed like it was good for both of our programs, both Michigan and Oklahoma, to have some changes.”
Xiao’s credentials gave him immediate credibility at Michigan.
“It gives you that extra confidence in your coach,” said senior Jamie Thompson, one of eight gymnasts who were freshmen when Xiao arrived. “I trust him fully. Whatever he says, you usually end up doing anyway, and it usually works. Might as well keep doing it. Xiao is always right.”
He quickly became a team favorite for his technical advice and the strong bonds he developed through his one-on-one work with the gymnasts. Williams said Xiao was always at his best working individually with a gymnast, and he has continued that trend at Michigan.
Xiao devises unique drills to help improve the Wolverines’ technique on different events. Senior Scott Bregman said he’s convinced some of the drills are made up on the spot, but they’re so intuitive and helpful it doesn’t matter.
One of Bregman’s most vivid memories of Xiao, who the senior calls the best coach he’s ever had, came early in his Wolverine career during a rough day at practice.
“He told me, ‘When you miss a set, that’s my problem. I have to figure out how to fix it. When you hit a set, that’s yours. You get to keep that,’ ” Bregman said. “There’s a sense that he’s in it with you.”
The laughing Wolverine
Xiao constantly cracks jokes to keep his gymnasts upbeat, even when they’re having tough workouts in the gym. His one-liners are legendary among the team. Last season, the gymnasts designed a team T-shirt with a picture of Xiao’s face, reading, “I Lika Dat.” It was received with universal amusement, especially on Xiao’s part.
“Xiao is a character,” Thompson said. “He’s always making fun of people, whether they know he’s making fun of them or not. … He’ll just have little remarks, and if you’re paying attention, they’re really funny.”
And as a coach, Xiao is an attractive force for recruits. Sophomore and U.S. Senior National Team member Chris Cameron said that Xiao’s presence was a major factor in his decision to attend Michigan.
When Xiao chose to add Cameron to his coaching group, Cameron said “it felt like I had won the lottery.”
And senior Ralph Rosso credits Xiao with much more than just helping the gymnasts with their sport.
“Without Xiao, most of us would not be the gymnasts that we are today,” Rosso said. “But most importantly we would not be who we are today without Xiao’s guidance over the last four years. Personally, Xiao has been a father-like figure to me … Our private chats are something that I will never forget, and I will take those wherever I go in life.”
Still far behind Oklahoma’s level of success, with the Wolverines Xiao has high hopes for the coming months and years.
“We’ve never had a team win,” Xiao said. “I think this year, we need to grab that chance. Don’t let it go sliding away. That’s the picture we’re looking for. So my best moment is not present, it’s in the future.”