To most onlookers, it was just another Tuesday morning at the Great American Gymnastics Express on the North Outer Road in Blue Springs.
Little pixies, dressed in their brighter-than-bright gym wear, were listening to coaches while they glided across mats, whirled on bars and did their best to stay atop the low-risk balance beam, which was placed on a mat and not a few feet in the air.
Yet, just a few feet away from the young hopefuls, elite level gymnasts Kara Eaker, Aleah Finnegan and Leanne Wong were visiting with coaches Armine Baruytan and her husband, Al Fong, as they made the final preparations for the biggest meet so far this year.
This talented trio, who returned last Thursday from helping the U.S. women’s gymnastics team win its fifth consecutive gold medal at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, was gearing up for the biggest Kansas City weekend of their lives.
Each of them participated in a quick video promotion, which allows a lucky fan to win an autographed T-shirt. There were then the final instructions before they grabbed their suitcases and travel gear and headed to a downtown Kansas City hotel for the start of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in which they would compete Friday and Sunday nights at the Sprint Center.
“They should be used to packing and unpacking a suitcase by now,” quipped Fong, the iconic coach who along with his wife Armine, helped prepare GAGE gymnasts Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool for their berths on the 2004 U.S. women’s Olympic team.
“This is very reminiscent of 2004 with Terin and Courtney,” Fong added, as he made sure each of the gymnasts’ videos was spot on. “To have two gymnasts on the U.S. team in 2004 was so special – and now, we have three young ladies who have a real shot at being a part of the 2020 team.
“This weekend is so big. We’re not going to be sleeping in our own beds because they want all the girls to stay at the same downtown hotel, but at least we’re close to home and close to our families – who will get to come out and support the girls in what I like to call the first cousin of the Olympics.”
While each of the three GAGE gymnasts earned a team gold medal at the Pan American Games, Eaker, who lives in Grain Valley, won a gold on the balance beam and a silver on the floor and Wong, who lives in Overland Park, brought home a silver medal for the bars. Finnegan also contributed points that led to the overall gold team medal.
In the team competition, the U.S. team posted a score of 171.000 to capture the title. Canada tallied a 160.600 for the silver, and Brazil brought home the bronze at 158.550.
“We had three of the five participants on the Pan Am team,” Fong said, smiling. “I just hope people from the area come out and support these young ladies this weekend, I really do, because they deserve it.”
I can back that comment, as I have watched Fong and Baruytan coach for more than 20 years, and unfortunately, GAGE is one of the best kept secrets in Eastern Jackson County.
I still cringe at the moment a former Blue Springs city official introduced silver medal winners Humphrey and McCall at a GAGE rally and called each of them by the wrong name.
Humphrey, who lives in Eastern Jackson County and recently hosted her wedding celebration party at GAGE, once told me she never signed an autograph when she was a student at Odessa High School until she returned home from Athens, the site of the 2004 Summer Games, with two silver medals.
Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. women’s events Friday and Sunday can be purchased at the Sprint Center box office or by calling 888-929-7849.
I would hope all of Eastern Jackson County would seize the opportunity to watch this talented trio as Eaker is from Grain Valley, Finnegan from Lee’s Summit and Wong from Overland Park, Kan.
If that’s not enough to get you off your couch and down to the Sprint Center, Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles will be a part of the biggest competition before the start of the road to Tokyo and the 2020 Summer Games.
“I’m really excited for the U.S Championships,” said Eaker, who attends Grain Valley High School. “You can feel the excitement here (at GAGE) and it’s only going to get more exciting as we get ready for Friday.”
Wong, who attends Blue Valley High School, could feel the energy as she and her teammates were given a special sendoff by the younger GAGE gymnasts.
“We’re home and we get the chance to perform right here in Kansas City,” said Wong, who claimed the women’s all-around title in the American Cup in March at Greensboro, N.C. “And that’s so exciting.”
Finnegan, who attends Summit Christian Academy in Lee’s Summit, shares her GAGE teammates’ enthusiasm.
“Everyone here is so excited,” she said, as she and her teammates were soon mobbed by the youngsters who had a special going away celebration planned.
Eaker, Finnegan and Wong were hugged, high-fived and hugged again by the youngsters who dream of having the same kind of success this trio has enjoyed.
“We were those little gymnasts not that long ago,” Finnegan said. “We had big dreams then, and we have big dreams now.”
And it all starts Friday night at the Sprint Center. I hope to see you down there.
– Bill Althaus is a sports writer and columnist for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com or 816-350-6333. Follow him on Twitter: @AlthausEJC