BYU gymnast finds identity after fleeing from Shanghai

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Hannah Miner
Angel Zhong, coming off an ankle injury, earns a score of 9.850 on the bars. (Hannah Miner)

The Zhong family sat in their new living room in Langley, Canada, just two years after fleeing from Shanghai, China. Because of the time difference, 8-year-old Angel Zhong woke up just in time to admire the gymnasts in the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Now a junior studying neuroscience and a member of BYU gymnastics, Angel’s unconventional past has molded her character.

Angel’s mother, Betty Wang, was married to Bill Zhong and living in Shanghai when she traveled to Australia for a work trip. She returned to China two years later in 1998 donning a new label: member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

However, those practicing Christianity during this time period were violating the policies outlined by the Chinese Communist Party. Even though Bill was unable to join the Church, he supported his wife in her discipleship.

“The concept of a God was really foreign to him, but he supported us so much,” Angel said.

By 2000, Betty received permission to hold church meetings in the privacy of her home, accompanied by other families who also learned of the Church in other countries.

Another law that became problematic for the family was the one-child policy announced by the Chinese government in the late 1970s, which limited the number of children a Chinese family could have.

When Betty initially became pregnant with Angel in 1999, she made the internal decision to raise her daughter.

“I was told I couldn’t keep the baby by doctors and family,” Betty said. “But I felt strongly that I had to keep the baby.”

This decision, though normal in the United States, was uncommon in China. Because of the one-child policy, many women opted for abortion or adoption when expecting a baby girl because they wished for a boy that would carry on the family name.

“She actually faced some pressure about giving me up for adoption, but she didn’t want to do that,” Angel said. “Usually the husband would say no, but my dad didn’t and always supported us.”

Within 18 months of Angel’s birth, her younger brother was born.

“She didn’t believe in abortions, which would be the most common thing to do,” Angel said. “With my brother, she decided she was going to trust in the Lord.”

Bill Zhong and Betty Wang raised two kids in Shanghai despite the one-child policy. (Photo courtesy of Angel Zhong)

When Betty started to appear pregnant with her second child, her community tried to coax her into aborting the child in order to avoid potential discipline. In fact, locals visited her home, hoping to personally take her to the hospital.

“I remember I went back to my apartment, and an older lady followed me and knocked on the door and I had to hide beside a mattress,” Betty said. “My husband had to tell her that I wasn’t there.”

After this experience, the Zhong family of four moved to a neighboring area to hide their newest addition and remain a family unit. At times, the couple sent their son to stay with one of few supportive family members to avoid discovery.

Since Angel was a young child at the time, she was oblivious to the anxious atmosphere surrounding her family’s situation.

“I just remember my parents not making a big deal about it,” Angel said. “They told me later and I was like, ‘That’s actually terrifying,’ because you could lose your job or go to prison.”

The discovery of Betty’s third pregnancy ultimately led the family to move to Canada in 2006, a move that proved to be a blessing for two main reasons: first, the young couple now had peace of mind in regard to raising their children, and second, they were free to actively participate in the Church, resulting in Bill’s eventual baptism.

Bill Zhong and Betty Wang moved from China to Canada when Betty became pregnant with the family’s third child. (Angel Zhong)

Because of Betty’s courage, not only was her family sealed in the Church’s temple, but her parents joined the Church as well.

“I feel so blessed that my family can know the gospel,” Betty said. “Without the gospel, I don’t know what kind of family I would have.”

The move to Canada came with the introduction to Angel’s new passion: gymnastics. Initially, the BYU all-around star pursued kung fu.

“We took my son to a kung fu class, but he was scared,” Betty said. “Because we were already there, Angel said she wanted to take his place.”

Hoping to continue this art form, Angel and her parents sought out a kung fu studio in their new country. However, their pursuit was fruitless, and they continued to search for an outlet for the 8-year-old’s energy.

Bill Zhong joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2006. (Angel Zhong)

“One day I was looking in the newspaper, and I saw a picture of a child doing a cartwheel,” Betty said. “I took the newspaper to Angel and said, ‘How about we do this?’”

According to Angel, starting gymnastics at that age is considered late for an elite gymnast. Furthermore, she waited until she was 10 to start training at a competitive level.

“I learned to work hard because I did start so late,” Angel said. “But I learned to believe in myself and that I would become a good gymnast someday.”

Just seven years after the Beijing Olympics inspired the young gymnast, she became the floor champion at nationals while in high school. This path led the young athlete to accept a position on the BYU gymnastics team in 2017.

Angel Zhong has one younger brother and three younger sisters. (Angel Zhong)

Under the direction of head coach Guard Young, Angel specialized in vault, earning a spot in the line-up for all 13 meets during her freshman year and a position on the All-MRGC Vault first-team.

Her 2019 season as a junior on the squad has included minor bumps in the road, specifically a sprained ankle. However, the manner in which she handled the injury impressed Young further.

“When kids are starters the year before and are taken out of the lineup, you start to see how they handle it,” Young said. “Those that stay positive and work hard make it back in, and that’s exactly what she’s done.”

With an obvious talent on floor and vault, Young said the gymnast continues to improve on beam.

“You should see her on the beam because that’s where she’s grown the most,” Young said. “She could slide right into our beam lineup, and we wouldn’t lose any points.”

Angel said leaving Canada to start her new life at BYU was a dream that goes deeper than just gymnastics. She said her move to Utah allowed her to talk openly about the Church and feel support from those with similar standards.

“I never felt like I fit in in Canada or China,” Angel said. “Here, these teammates are capable of so much love, and they’ve shown me love for who I am as a person, not just for what I can do.”

This display of love helped Angel discover her true identity at BYU.

Hannah Miner
Angel Zhong mentally prepares for vault post-injury. (Hannah Miner)

“I’m way more confident, and I think that comes with the fact that I found my identity,” Zhong said. “It’s kind of cheesy, but I feel like I always had to hide it.”

Because she felt the need to hide her testimony for so long, she strives to live her faith proudly and consistently.

“She’s really humble and a sweetheart of a girl,” Young said. “She’s so pure and chaste, and is someone that’s really special.”

From roots instilled in a non-Christian country to openly living as a disciple of Jesus Christ, Angel has a story as diverse as yin and yang.

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