Kara Eaker, a sophomore at Grain Valley High School, might have received the coolest birthday present of any 16-year-old in Eastern Jackson County.
When she walked into the Great American Gymnastic Express for her daily workout, Eaker was handed a plaque that featured her, Simone Biles and the other members of the U.S. gold medal Pan American team.
Her coach, Armine Barutyan, couldn’t wait to show Eaker the plaque that happened to arrive Wednesday, on her 16th birthday.
“Wow,” Eaker said, grinning like a child who had just received her first puppy. “That is so special.”
Eaker followed her Pan American Games’ success with her first world championship, as Team USA dominated the 48th annual FIG World Gymnastics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Oct. 23-27, as Eaker starred on the beam.
The United States women won the team title with an 8.766-point margin of victory, their largest ever at a World Championships or Olympic Games.
They also qualified the U.S. team for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Eaker contributed the highest beam score of the event and qualified for beam finals.
While Simone Biles gets much of the Team USA attention, and it is well deserved as she is the most decorated United States gymnast in team history, it was Eaker’s balance beam routine, Grace McCallum’s 16th birthday performance on her floor and vault and Morgan Hurd’s top-five scores on vault and uneven bars that helped the U.S. team’s dominance.
“It shows how strong the group of girls are and how strong Team USA is,” Biles told the Associated Press after collecting the record 15th world championship medal of her career. “I feel like anything you guys throw at us we’ll try and work even harder to improve ourselves and our scores for the team.”
The U.S. put up a total of 171.629 to win its fourth straight world title and secured a spot at the 2020 Olympics.
But that does not guarantee Eaker a place on the 2020 Olympic team.
“Kara has to earn her place on the Olympic team, much like she has to earn her place on the United States world team next year,” Barutyan said. “But this was her first world championship and she did an amazing job on the beam.
“That was her specialty, the only event she competed in, and she made a big impression on the world judges.”
Eaker and Barutyan made the 15-hour flight to Qatar, and arrived to find 95 degree days and nights.
She had to train at three different sites, use unfamiliar equipment and deal with the pressure that is inherent with a world competition.
And she flourished.
“It was pretty amazing, being on the same team as Simone and competing against the best athletes from over 140 countries,” Eaker said. “I don’t think it all really hit me – just what it would be like – until I got there. And I just wanted to do my best and represent my country and GAGE.”
Barutyan and her husband, GAGE owner and fellow world class coach Al Fong, have mapped out a three-step path to what they hope will be Olympic glory for Eaker.
“First, Kara had to make the National Team, which she did,” Barutyan explained, “and then have success at the Pan Am Games, where our team brought home the gold and she placed first on the beam and third on her floor routine.
“And then, the World Championships, and she was outstanding on the beam. She made a real impression on the judges. I am sure many of them were wondering, ‘Who’s this newcomer?’”
The answer is simple: A world champion.