Setting a high bar: How Jonathan Wang’s talent, commitment transformed Cal men’s gymnastics

Jonathan Wang UC Berkeley
Nathan Phillips/KLC Fotos/Courtesy

Related Posts

Jonathan Wang was born with an athletic gift too good to ignore.

Despite the fact that he excelled in practically every sport he tried, it wasn’t his baseball talent, his golf skills or his skating abilities that suited him as well as he did them. Wang’s natural athletic gifts were the perfect fit for gymnastics.

“The thing about Jon is that he’s so talented. Even if I worked at 100% commitment and he worked at 50%, he is still able to be right at the same level as me,” said Kyte Crigger, former team captain of the Cal men’s gymnastics team. “That’s how much talent he has.”

It isn’t every day that an athlete has natural athletic ability that exceeds what years of hard work and training can give you in the sport of gymnastics. Being good at this sport takes time, but it also takes luck. You have to have the exceptional physicality and natural talent — the right build, the right endurance, flexibility and the ability to move your body in certain ways beyond what the average athlete can do.

Wang has all of these things and more, so much so that a gymnastics coach noticed his ability early on.

His 18-year gymnastics journey began with his mother, Lujia Tang, and his sister Julia Wang, a former captain of USC’s women’s club gymnastics team. Wang was playing around at the local gym in his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, while his sister took classes. A gymnastics coach, who also happened to be a friend of his mother’s, noticed Wang’s ability and recommended to Tang that her son try out a class.

At the time, Wang was a versatile athlete interested mostly in baseball. The idea that he would eventually end up as a Junior Olympic athlete and member of the Cal men’s gymnastics team probably didn’t even cross his mother’s mind all those years ago.

“I didn’t take it seriously; he was still too young,” Tang said. “(The coach) convinced me saying, ‘Believe me, he is really a good fit for gymnastics.’ ”

After some convincing, Wang joined his local gym and launched the start of his 18-year journey through gymnastics. Getting into the sport was the easy part, however — the amount of time Wang and his family would have to spend dedicated to gymnastics over the next few years brought more complicated challenges.

Wang had the foundational natural ability, but to make his talent blossom, he had to follow through with commitment.

“I had school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then practice from 5 to 9 p.m. The gym was 30 minutes away, so not so much time between school and practice,” Wang said. “I would try to squeeze some homework in between.”

Gymnastics took over the family’s life, and unlike in typical households, the Wangs’ time with family and friends was very limited. Wang’s mother worked according to her kids’ schedules, driving him and his sister back and forth between school, the gym and their home. On top of gymnastics, Wang led a busy school life, his minute-by-minute schedule packed with classes and homework. The family was so busy that there was almost no time left for meals at the family table, and every day, Wang had dinner in the car on the way back home from the gym.

Once Wang’s parents saw the potential he had in gymnastics, the whole family’s commitment to his schedule became more serious. So did the expectations from the people around him — as soon as the pressure increased, Wang felt as if the “fun” phase of gymnastics was over.

“I wanted to play baseball more than gymnastics, actually,” Wang said. “There was a time where I really wanted to quit because there was too much pressure and lots of high standards for me.”

Wang had to make a choice: free time and a less serious commitment to baseball, or the hours and hours of intense practice and competition that came along with gymnastics.

Despite his unusual schedule and having to make significant sacrifices all while bearing the intense pressure of being a competitive athlete, Wang quickly reached milestones that marked his success, demonstrating that his years of commitment were all worth it.

At the age of 12, he was selected for the men’s National Future Stars Developmental Team. At the 2016 P&G National Championships, he placed first in parallel bars. Wang set a high bar for himself and met it.

Wang’s impressive achievements throughout his career, such as being named to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation All-Academic team in 2019, can be contrasted with his funny and lighthearted personality. Even though Wang is a serious athlete, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, using humor as a way to help him cope with the stress.

“He really is funny. He just comes up with weird words, or he starts doing TikTok dances in the gym,” said Yu-Chen Lee, one of Wang’s former teammates and friends. “He is definitely the person who brings energy to the team.”

Cal men’s gymnastics coach J.T. Okada recognizes the remarkable growth Wang has shown throughout his time on the team. At first, Wang’s humor might have been a small barrier in the way of his commitment. Now, he’s found a way to preserve his playfulness while also staying grounded and focused.

“For a while, he was being funny and cracked a lot of jokes, maybe not so serious,” Okada said. “It was really this year that I saw this maturity in him where he was really focused on doing well.”

Wang has always been talented and free-spirited, but what transformed him into a main pillar of the Bears’ gymnastics program was the mentorship he received from older teammates. He became a mature leader by being accountable for his own performance and recognizing the effect it had on his team’s scores, while also using the lessons he learned from his mentors and paying it forward to mentees of his own.

Naming former teammates Roshan Toopal and Bailey Chang as his mentors, Wang remembers the ways in which they raised the bar for him and pushed him to be the best all-around athlete and person he could be.

“It wasn’t really specific advice they gave me. They were just there to guide me along the way in all aspects,” Wang said. “They were all balanced, hardworking and responsible. They were just on top of everything.”

Because of their influence, Wang decided to become the kind of leader who leads through actions instead of words. He didn’t worry about being the most vocal member of the team, instead choosing to work his hardest and treat his teammates with respect.

“If he starts to do something, like training drills, people actually follow him,” Lee said. “He’s an influencer and a role model on the team.”

Wang is a talented athlete and a leader, but underneath all his athletic accomplishments, he’s a recent graduate whose last year at Cal was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the unexpected twist of fate that aborted his final season of gymnastics, he feels ready to move on and enter the world of real adulthood in the Bay Area. Most importantly, he’s excited about having the free time to try out something besides gymnastics.

“I just want to play other sports, like basketball, and I want to start skiing again,” Wang said.

The natural athletic gift that propelled Wang into a lengthy, successful career in gymnastics retired when he graduated from Cal, but the opportunities and lessons it gave him will last a lifetime. Wang has conquered the high bar inside the gym and out, but there’s no doubt he will continue to raise it in every aspect of his life well after a beautiful dismount into the professional world.

Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].