Vahe Gregorian

The next big thing in USA gymnastics, and perhaps the Olympics? Meet OP’s Leanne Wong

After winning American Cup, teen gymnast Leanne Wong sets sights on Tokyo Olympics

Watch Leanne Wong perfect her routine on the balance beam during a recent practice. The 15-year-old gymnast , who attends Blue Valley High, recently won the American Cup and has her sights set on making the USA Olympic team.
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Watch Leanne Wong perfect her routine on the balance beam during a recent practice. The 15-year-old gymnast , who attends Blue Valley High, recently won the American Cup and has her sights set on making the USA Olympic team.

Some 2 million people now have watched her performance on the uneven bars, punctuated by an impeccable landing, last month in the American Cup in Greensboro, North Carolina.

And that was just part of a dynamic senior gymnastics debut to win the all-around in a competition featuring past Olympians and world champions that previously has been a springboard for the transcendent likes of Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Simone Biles among other gymnastics royalty.

Her 56.675 score there is third in the world this year, per The Gymternet, and she shares the cover of this month’s International Gymnast magazine and is on at least a tentative trajectory toward the 2020 Olympics — which her mother by text message recently reminded her was 500 days away and counting.

Sure seems like time to meet our own Leanne Wong, who isn’t yet a household name around her home turf even as international fame is percolating. Chances are you haven’t heard of her until now.

Which perfectly suits the 15-year-old Blue Valley High sophomore who trains with Al Fong and his wife, Armine Barutyan, at GAGE Center in Blue Springs.

Wong remains as reserved and humble as she is poised even if Fong believes she is part of USA Gymnastics’ “Plan A” list, a nicely timed development with the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships scheduled for Sprint Center in August.

“She actually gets upset if we say too many good things about her,” her father, Marco, said with a laugh, adding that the family perspective is, simply, “So far, so good.”

Accordingly, while Wong is not afraid of cameras or winning itself, Barutyan says, she’s also smart enough not to let this get to her head.

Her athleticism is bolstered by a “terrific mental capacity,” said Fong, whose motto is “we train Olympians,” and who previously has coached 2004 Olympic silver medalists Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool and alternates Ivana Hong (2008) and Sarah Finnegan (2012). Fong and Barutyan also are training current Olympic hopefuls Aleah Finnegan, Sarah’s sister, and Kara Eaker, who was part of Team USA’s gold-medal performance in last year’s world championships.

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So even as Wong has been cast into the spotlight and is openly gazing into the stratosphere of Tokyo 2020, the sort of dream that can become more overwhelming as it becomes more legitimate, it helps the cause that she is grounded and rounded.

She plays the piano, enjoys sight-seeing, cooking and rollercoasters and apparently is as devoted to school as she is to her work in the gym, where Barutyan sometimes calls her “lemon-face” for her serious demeanor.

Ask her what she does for fun, and Wong won’t mention one of those hobbies. Instead, she smiles and says “a lot of homework.”

That sense of discipline explains how she can train for 30-plus hours a week and still have a 4.28 GPA and ambitions of a career in medicine much like her father and mother, Bee Ding, research scientists so dedicated to their work that their then-infant daughter often slept on a couch in the lab as they worked overnights early in their marriage.

“She was part of the group, burning the midnight oil,” said Marco Wong, the medical director of a biotech company who has his M.D. and Ph.D. and tells you he’s available 24-7 for questions.

That evidently set an early tone for embracing the consuming demands of the sport that she turned to after developing a certain objection to ice skating. Even wearing extra diapers for padding, the falls on hard ice were unbearable.

But one window closes, another opens: She literally and figuratively found a softer landing spot in gymnastics, which her father wondered about when he saw Fong being interviewed on television one night and figured here was a “world-renowned coach who wasn’t too far away.”

Initially, they took Leanne to GAGE for fun and to let out some of the energy that her mother remembered included routinely vaulting over a couch at home. Turned out she had both the aptitude and attitude to make it something more than just falling into soft mats instead of onto hard ice.

Never mind that she wasn’t initially very flexible and her knees were “a little knobby,” as Fong put it.

“She was very quick, had all those little things that you look for in a gymnast,” he said. “And very quickly, she just molded into exactly what we thought she’d be.”

Actually, it was over the course of most of a decade that along the way included her winning the 2018 junior U.S. all-around and constantly adding to her repertoire on what Barutyan calls the “routine skeleton.”

“It’s like Build-A-Bear,” she said, smiling at the thought of adding accessories as she advances.

It also can be a lot to bear, coming at a cost that’s not for the squeamish.

The family, which includes two younger brothers, was spared what Fong called the “awful decisions” some choose to make about whether to send their children away for training. But the demands still are extraordinary — including a contractual stipulation that the girls can’t get tattoos or have boyfriends “until you leave this gym,” Fong said.

If it sounds extreme, well, it absolutely is. In fact, it’s an entire lifestyle decision for a family and a girl who now says, “I’m really looking forward to the Olympics” with valid conviction.

“We’re not dictating anything; we’re just saying we know what it takes,” Fong said. “If they’re not buying in, it’s not our mission to force them into it. We just know that it can’t be done (otherwise), and we’re not going to take them.”

In the same vein, the elite gymnasts at GAGE typically take Sundays off and a few days at Christmas, maybe a day or two more at Thanksgiving. That goes “against the grain of most families,” Fong acknowledged.

While this family often tries to tack on a few days together at out-of-town competitions, Leanne says she last remembers a vacation “when I was, like, 2,” and her parents don’t dispute that.

“It’s a little bit hard on the family,” said Ding, who six days a week drives 45 minutes each way to GAGE around her daughter’s 5 ½ hour training sessions. “If you take a week off, you feel like it’s a month off.”

All of this will feel all the more ratcheted up in the months to come with such competitions as the Pan American Games, the U.S. championships and world championships all funneling into momentum towards Tokyo next year.

And while Wong could contend in 2024, for now it’s all about 2020 tunnel vision.

“Everything that she does has got to be centered around that. Everything that mom and dad do, everything the brothers do, everything around what we do, has got to be centered around this,” Fong said. “You only get one shot at 2020.”

So far, so good, for a name we might just be learning but figure to hear plenty more about.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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