Al Fong knew he had one more task to complete before his wife gave birth.

Al Fong knew he had one more task to complete before his wife gave birth.

And that was leading two gymnasts – girls he and wife Armine Barutyan-Fong train at Great American Gymnastic Express in Blue Springs – into the Pan-American Championships.

Fong and his wife were expecting the birth of their daughter in early September, but Al Fong had committed to coaching the USA Gymnastics women’s national team in the Pan-American Championships Sept. 2-5 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The Pan American Championships, held every two years, is the men’s and women’s gymnastics qualifying event for the 2011 Pan American Games, also set for Guadalajara. The six-person team included Brenna Dowell of Odessa, and Sarah Finnegan of Lake Lotawana, both of whom train at GAGE.

With the help of Finnegan and Dowell, the Fong-led U.S. team easily won the gold medal in Guadalajara, with Finnegan earning a bronze medal in the balance beam.

“We did good,” Dowell said. “We won by 18 1/2 points. It was good to have (Fong) there because he’s our coach.”

Added Finnegan: “It was great. Armine was about to have her baby, so it was like really hard for (Fong) to go down there because she was due, like, really soon. But, it turned out great. She just had her baby.

“It was a really good feeling (winning the bronze medal). I worked really hard, and I got it done.”

Several U.S. gymnasts, including the 14-year-old Dowell, did not advance to event finals due to the maximum two athletes per country rule.

“They did excellent,” Fong said of Finnegan and Dowell. “It was a bit of a surprise because we always know what our goals are (every four years). Two years ago we know what our game plan is, how the development has to fall and what mile marker we must meet. That’s our goal, but you never really know what the rest of the country is doing.”

What the rest of the country – the U.S. women’s team – was doing was bringing home a gold medal, while Fong and his GAGE gymnasts were trying to put aside the Fongs’ expectant arrival.

“It was something that I was torn with as my role as father and family man and my role and obligations as not only the coach of my personal athletes who’ve spent their lives and sacrificed their families moving over here just to train for that ultimate end, but also for my country,” Fong said.

“I had an obligation as a head coach to go out there and win, too. We were just hoping the baby was going to arrive on time instead of earlier. It turned out great. I got home four days before my daughter was born (Sept. 10). You couldn’t have a happier, luckier dad right now.”

Fong said Finnegan, 13, and Dowell’s experience will help them in the long run as they both try to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. They’re on the international list as favorites to make the 2012 team, although Finnegan’s age may become a factor in 2012, Fong said.

“It was an outstanding experience for these young ladies,” Fong said. “They’ve never competed for any other team other than the (GAGE) Dragons. Now, they were competing for a much larger purpose.

“America’s placement to the Olympic team was on their shoulders with the four other kids. They did a great job. And they’re rookies. They’ve never been out before, and they did a great job. They knew their responsibilities and they maintained their responsibilities and now they know how it works.

“That makes my life a little easier – my job a littler easier – because I don’t have to convince them or tell them what to expect. They already know.”

The event was the first international assignment for both Dowell and Finnegan since making the U.S. national team in August following the Visa U.S. Championships.

“It was cool,” Dowell said of experience. “It was fun competing with every team because it was different, and that’s what we were focusing on. The final day, I just watched and learned everything that the guys (of the USA men’s team) and the girls were doing.”