The smile on Al Fong’s face said it all after a grueling, two-day U.S. Gymnastics Championships at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City.
Fong and his wife Armine Baruytan, coaches at the Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) in Blue Springs, sent three competitors to the championships and saw two girls earn a spot on the United States national team, while a third made a big splash at her first senior meet by earning an individual medal.
Leanne Wong and Kara Eaker each earned their third consecutive spot on the U.S. national team, while Aleah Finnegan placed sixth on the floor.
Wong placed third on the beam, fifth on the bars and was fifth in the all-around while Eaker placed second to six-time U.S. champion Simone Biles on the beam.
“There’s a reason I’m smiling,” Fong said late Sunday night after all the team and individual awards had been handed out. “Our girls brought it – they really brought it.
“And Kansas City brought it, too. The crowds here were just amazing – record crowds! Kansas City made a statement this weekend and I’d like to think that GAGE was a small part of that statement.”
Wong, who lives in Overland Park but trains in Blue Springs, was thrilled to make the U.S. national team, but not with her fifth-place overall performance, as she went into the final session, the floor exercise, in third place.
“I had hoped to remain in third place, but had some problems with my floor routine that we will work on and clean up,” Wong said. “Making the national team is amazing, but my performances here could have been better.
“But I am so happy that Kara made the national team and that Aleah won those medals. You are always happy when your teammates have success.”
Eaker, a student at Grain Valley High School, agreed with Wong.
“We know how hard each of us work so it is very satisfying to have personal success and to see your teammates have success, too,” Eaker said. “This is my third national team, and my second as a senior, where we are competing against the best gymnasts in the United States and the world.
“To compete against someone like Simone, and stand next to her on the podium (following their performances on the beam) is amazing. We all feel like there is so much more work to be done. This is just the start.”
Finnegan, who lives in Lee’s Summit, said her first senior competition provided a lifetime of memories and lessons.
“I am so proud of Kara and Leanne for making the national team, they deserve it, and Al and Armine deserve it too because they work just as hard as we do,” Finnegan said.
“This meet provided a lifetime of memories, and winning medals is so special. I learned this weekend what it is like to compete against the very best (United States) gymnasts in the world and I know that after a day or two off, we will be right back at GAGE working hard to make sure that we have even more success.”
Fong was happy his gymnasts were able to bounce back so quick from a team gold medal performance at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
“We just got back (last week) from the Pan American Games, and to be honest with you, that was an exhausting 12 days,” Fong added. “But that didn’t keep us from working hard to get ready – in a very short time span – to come down here to the Sprint Center and compete, because GAGE is all about competing.
“And Leanne and Kara earned a spot on the senior national team and Aleah was just outstanding. … We got out of this competition healthy, and ready for our next challenge – the World Championships (Oct. 4-13 in Stuttgart, Germany).”
The Kansas City Sports Commission and USA Gymnastics announced that 33,894 fans – a record for the national championships – attended the four-day meet at the Sprint Center.
Biles, who claimed her sixth all-around title, was named Athlete of the Year and her coach, Laurant Landi, was selected the Coach of the Year by USA Gymnastics.