FORT WORTH, Texas -- As Stanford began its final rotation on vault on Friday, it needed to post a strong score in order to advance to the Super Six. It needed Ivana Hong.
Hong was not in the original lineup on vault. Coach Kristen Smyth said she would only be used if absolutely necessary and made the late decision to add her in. As the final competitor on the event, Hong posted a 9.85 to secure the Cardinal’s spot in Saturday’s team finals. Nevermind it was her first competitive vault in two years. A knee injury at the national championships at UCLA in 2013 forced her to miss the entire 2014 season, and she had only competed on bars and beam in 2015.
Hong trained in nearby Plano, Texas under Valeri Liukin, the father of 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin. At the age of 15, she was named an alternate to that same Olympic team. It was a proud moment for Hong and her family, but also one that holds special meaning for Hong and her mother.
You see, at the same age of 15, her mother Michelle was escaping Vietnam in a boat.
“It’s absolutely an incredible story,” Hong said. “The age my mom was in escaping Vietnam, I was vying for the Olympics. And she also went to Stanford as well so me being there is just really special.
"Also, coming back to Texas, the last place I trained before I went to Stanford. I know my family’s loving being able to come back and I’m glad we gave them a great reason to come back and we’re going to be out there for one more night. I wouldn’t be here with out my mom and my parents and my family.”
Telling the entire story of her mother’s escape would take hours, Hong said, but she added it's a story that deserves to be told because she has benefited so much from the struggles her mom had to go through.
“It’s incredible what she went through at that age," Hong said. "I can’t even imagine escaping by boat from a different country for your life and here I am so honored to be able to do a sport, doing gymnastics and representing Stanford.”
Smyth says that appreciation of her mother’s sacrifice comes through in her attitude.
“Probably one of the most competitive and determined athletes I have had the pleasure of working with,” Smyth said. “Her attention to detail is second to none. And yet she has a very nurturing side and a very supportive side. So she’s kind of that quiet, confident leader that is able to lift her teammates up and get the job done.
"And I think it says a lot about her family, and moving around and what her mother went through growing up to be here."
Stanford overcame some challenges early in the season. From posting a 193.450 in its first meet to dealing with multiple illnesses and injuries, things did not look good early on, but the Cardinal put things together when it mattered.
The team posted a season-high 197.175 to finish third in the Pac-12 Championships then finished second at the Morgantown Regional. Hong was a regular season All-American on beam and won the event at regionals with a career-best 9.95 for her third-career regional title.
Now the Cardinal find themselves back in the Super Six for the first time since 2012 with a chance to win their first national championship.
“It’s something we all dream of,” Hong said. “We work for the entire year and so being able to get out there again and vie for that [national title] is just really amazing.”