Al Fong’s story has been told and retold – locally, nationally and internationally – during the past 30 years.
Call it the American Dream achieved.
Al Fong’s story has been told and retold – locally, nationally and internationally – during the past 30 years. But early Wednesday morning, just before he undertook another day of coaching gymnastics, Fong talked for 30 minutes and reflected on 30 years of a business that’s brought him notoriety and fame alike.
“It seems like 30 years has just screamed by,” he said. “It’s just so fast; it’s unreal. But, the funny thing is this …”
Fong stands in the upstairs viewing area at his Great American Gymnastic Express gym in Blue Springs. He leans down and points at a group of about 15 girls – ranging in age from 10 to 16 – practicing their gymnastics skills on balance beams.
“Me personally, I’m stuck in time,” Fong said. “These kids move up. They grow older. Every year, I’m still working with the same age of kids. Time stands still in this gym.”
In the mid-1970s, fewer than 25,000 residents called Blue Springs home, though the city was poised for its growth. Fong found himself “intrigued” with the Kansas City metropolitan area, and to the Seattle native, Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit were small.
“In the bird’s-eye view of a guy who was just fresh out of college, it looked like Lee’s Summit was a small town, and it looked like Blue Springs was even smaller,” Fong said. “When I thought of moving, I didn’t really anticipate staying here because I was already tired of a small town.”
Moving to Kansas City was a pure fluke, Fong said. After graduating from Louisiana State University, he operated a gymnastics program and two national Amateur Athletic Union gymnastics championships in Rogers, Ark.
He met a Lee’s Summit man who frequently visited family in Rogers. His daughter was a decent tumbler, and he wanted Fong’s help in Lee’s Summit with a program.
A year and a half later, the two men had a falling out.
“I’m outta here,” Fong said of his thoughts at the time.
He had his sights set on Texas or Los Angeles where opportunities outside of gymnastics awaited him.
Then Tom Ries and Dick Borris entered Fong’s life. The Blue Springs residents had children in gymnastics, and they begged Fong to stay. They would help him start up his own gym, his own business.
“I don’t want a gym. I don’t want to get in the gym business,” Fong said. “Not at all – I didn’t think it could accomplish what my dreams were. I wanted to be independent. I wanted to make money. I wanted to travel. I wanted to do things to help my community and country.”
At a time when the Soviet Union dominated the Olympic event, U.S. gymnasiums for gymnastics were a rarity in the late 1970s, Fong said. Those interested usually had to visit a YMCA or a parks and recreation program. Gyms that did exist, Fong said, were nonprofit, parent-operated facilities that ceased as the parents’ children grew up and outgrew their self-started operation.
“Coming from that era, I wanted to have nothing to do with the gymnastics business because I didn’t see it as a viable profession I could hang my hat on,” Fong said.
He remained adamant with Ries and Borris even as the men promised Fong an opportunity – the opportunity to grow as an individual and to learn about a business.
All Fong saw was a trap, a prison that he couldn’t get away from.
Nevertheless, he lived with Ries and his family for about six months as the original GAGE Center at U.S. 40 started. Fong was convinced that if he paid attention to detail in building his business, he could one day have all he wanted.
“They were absolutely right,” he said.
GAGE called a location on U.S. 40 in Blue Springs its home for five years. It held one floor exercise mat, two beams, two bars and one restroom located in the gym’s center.
Today, it’s a pet-related business.
In 1985, GAGE relocated to its existing location just north of Interstate 70 at 1101 N.W. Jefferson St. An expansion took place in 2006.
Like any businessman, Fong’s had his fair share of financial troubles through the years, though he didn’t want to talk much about them Wednesday. He’s pleased with how badly the banking industry is struggling because at one time, it was Fong in the hot seat, with the banks questioning his intentions.
“Let me just say this: Bad things happen to good people. You think you’re all prepared. Then through a turn of events, unfortunate things happen and all of a sudden, what you had planned didn’t work,” Fong said. “I’m sitting here today telling you that I survived all that. We’re on solid ground, and we’re doing a good job of contributing to the community and building a solid business.”
Fong has had his failures and successes in the sport as well. He helped Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool reach the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where they helped the U.S. team win a silver medal while Humphrey won a silver medal in the uneven bars. He had Olympic near misses with Christy Henrich and Ivana Hong, but he has helped several area gymnasts make national teams and earn college scholarships.
Building his business with the help of his wife, Armine Barutyan Fong – a native of Armenia and former world-class gymnast for the Soviet Union who helps coach – Fong has not one single regret as GAGE’s owner.
“Never,” Fong said. “You always say you could have done this better or done that better. We’re making very significant changes today to even boost our enrollments and the revenues here at the gym, but five years from today, we might look at it and say, ‘We should have done this.’ That’s life.”
He’s turned his back on book deals and nationwide speaking tours because his commitment remains to his Blue Springs gym. He’s the lucky one, Fong said.
“This is my life,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out there who don’t really like what they’re doing. This is my passion. I get to help my community. I have a positive impact on today’s youth. I get to serve my country.”
Patriotism is vital to Fong as his working-class family got its start in the United States. The culmination of his efforts have transcended into a “moment of nothing greater” while standing on a stage with U.S. Olympic athletes he has trained.
“This is the land of the free with opportunities you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “To me as an individual, I lucked out because my family made those decisions. That’s why I’m here in this country today, and that’s why there’s so many from other countries trying to get in here today.”
His voice is quiet as he reflects on his parents, both first-generation Chinese Americans. The Fong family had humble beginnings. In the final 15 years of his life, Eddie Fong worked three jobs to provide for his family.
“He always wanted to make sure that we had a better life than he did,” Al Fong said of his father.
Retirement, to Fong, is a funny word with different interpretations. A man in his mid-50s, Fong remains in strong physical shape, his head shaved and a single diamond earring stud in his left ear. He admits that as the years press on, it would be difficult for him to continue coaching at his current level.
As a businessman, though, he’ll stay.
“I want this to be a very important part of the community so that this is the station where people evolve,” Fong said. “They grow up, they marry their high-school sweetheart, they raise children, their children take their baby steps, and then they come to GAGE.”