For the last three decades, Al Fong has used his inventive, precise style to make himself one of the better-known coaches in the country. And as the owner of the vaunted GAGE Center in Blue Springs, he wants to help “change the culture” of gymnastics.
We’ll get to all that in a bit.
For now, here’s what’s most important: Fong, the coach of senior national team gymnasts Kara Eaker, Aleah Finnegan and Leanne Wong, hasn’t changed anything about his coaching ahead of the U.S. gymnastics championships, set for Thursday through Sunday at the Sprint Center.
That’s notable because the trio — Eaker, from Grain Valley; Finnegan, from Lee’s Summit; Wong, from Overland Park, Kansas — has been plenty busy this summer.
Late last month, they competed at the Pan American Games in Peru, where Eaker secured a gold medal on the balance beam and silver in floor exercise. Wong brought home a silver medal in uneven bars. An injury held Finnegan out of the vault final.
A week after finishing up in Peru, the group will compete this week in Kansas City. Should they perform well enough at that meet, they’ll compete in Germany at the October World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. And then there’s the Olympics next summer in Tokyo.
Quite the schedule.
The key is this, though: Fong, his wife and assistant coach Armine Barutayn and the three gymnasts don’t see the rigorous timetable as anything challenging or strenuous. That’s because around this time last year, Fong sat down and outlined a plan.
“At first, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. It’s going to be tough to stay in shape to go from one meet to the next meet in such short order,’” Fong said. “But in this case, I think it’s an advantage for us, because we had to train under intense conditions, under scrutiny, under pressure, pressure routines, multiple times in the training room, and in the field of play at the Pan Ams.
“If we were back home, we would have been trying to duplicate that somehow in our gym. But we were actually in an environment at the Pan Ams where we had to do that anyway.”
To gain a better understanding of who these gymnasts are and why they don’t view this quick turnaround as a challenge, their backgrounds can be of service.
Eaker, an incoming junior at Grain Valley High School, is a 2018 world championships team champion and a 2018 U.S. balance beam silver medalist. At last year’s national championships in Boston, she placed second on the balance beam, fifth in floor exercise and seventh in the all-around.
Remember: That’s all on top of the gold and silver medals she earned on July 31. She’ll be back in action in barely more than a week, but she doesn’t mind the quick turnaround.
“Having those competitions right before (nationals) helps get us ready to go,” Eaker said. “So we just get this downtime to rest, and then we can get right back out there.”
This fall, Finnegan will be a junior at Marian Hope Academy in Lee’s Summit. Then she’s committed to compete at LSU, same as her sister, Sarah, an alternate for Team USA at the 2012 Olympics and the reigning NCAA champion on the uneven bars (a title she also claimed in 2017).
With her family’s background in the sport, Aleah Finnegan shares a minor annoyance with Eaker, who lamented how many of her friends think, “Oh, she can do a backflip,” when they think of her career as a gymnast.
There’s more to it than that, both agreed. Especially because Finnegan is the reigning Gymnix International vault champion.
“I go to a small school, so people there are like, ‘Oh, she’s a gymnast. Ooooh,’” Finnegan said with a laugh. “I don’t think they understand the high level we compete at. So I think it’s a good opportunity to show everyone, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing. Feel free to come watch.’”
Finally, there’s Wong, an incoming junior at Blue Valley High in Overland Park who made her senior gymnastics debut in March by winning the all-around at the American Cup in Greensboro, North Carolina.
She, too, is unbothered by the quick succession of competitions.
“I think it’s a good preparation,” Wong said. “These past two weeks were a really good experience for us to go through our routines and get used to competing. And then this is the big show. We have the national championships in our hometown. We’re really excited.”
This brings us back to Fong, his coaching resume and what it has to do with this week’s event at the Sprint Center. He’s coached two Olympic silver medalists, Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool, and he’s turned his gym into one of the most renowned in the country in part by simplifying his training methods.
In this case, that means keeping his gymnasts in shape amid what could’ve otherwise been some exhausting turnarounds. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics loom large, after all, and this event will play a significant role in solidifying Team USA’s roster.
Plus, the following name will be in attendance beginning Thursday: Simone Biles, the 2016 Olympic and 2018 world all-around champion who is trying to become the first woman in nearly 70 years to win six senior U.S. all-around titles.
In other words, Eaker, Finnegan and Wong have plenty of competition in KC this week. The good news for them: They’ve also had plenty of preparation.
“These same three girls went through this for the last 12 days,” Fong said, “so we should be able to hang on to that same experience, and feel it, and go right into the championships.”