GAGE gymnasts make college choices

Wong, Eaker will put colleges on hold for now to chase berths on U.S. Olympic team

By Bill Althaus
Flanked by Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) coach Armine Barutyan, left, and her husband, Al Fong, right, are GAGE gymnasts, from left, Alexis Jeffrey, Aleah Finnegan, Kara Eaker and Leanne Wong, who signed their national letters of intent to continue their gymnastic careers at Division I universities across the country.

Intrigue, excitement and the joy of celebrating a job well done were all part of a quartet of Great American Gymnastics Express Division I signees who took part in a special celebration Saturday morning at the Blue Springs gymnasium.

Kara Eaker, who will attend Utah, Aleah Finnegan, LSU; and Alexis Jeffrey, UCLA, smiled, posed for photos and signed autographs for the countless young gymnasts who attended the party.

But one gymnast, Leanne Wong, created an air of mystery as she had a grand unveiling that revealed she would continue her gymnastics career at the University of Florida.

She took off a Team USA sweatshirt to reveal a Florida Gators shirt underneath, as her mother brought two giant "UF" balloons, representing the university's initials.

“We didn’t know until we saw Leanne in her Florida shirt,” said Eaker, who also had a signing ceremony at Grain Valley High School on Wednesday, which was National Signing Day.

Each of the young gymnasts had a reason they selected their respective schools.

“I chose Florida for its academic and gymnastic programs,” said Wong, who along with Eaker have a chance of making the United States Olympic gymnastics team for the Summer Games in Tokyo now scheduled for 2021. “Until I know for sure what happens with the Olympics next year, I will stay here and train with (coaches) Al (Fong) and Armine (Baruytan). I’ve been training here since I was 5. It’s all I’ve known most of my life.

“And the coaches at Florida are happy to let me stay and compete for a spot on the Olympics team.

Ditto for Eaker, who added, “Utah is just like home. I love the school and the coaches and the girls on the team. I signed the other day at my high school, but today is very special to sign with Leanne, Aleah and Alexis.

“And whatever happens with the Olympic team will determine when I will leave for school.”

Finnegan and Jeffrey plan on being at their respective schools in the fall of 2021.

“Being from Warrensburg, Missouri, I can’t even imagine what it is going to be like living in Los Angeles,” Jeffrey said. “But I can’t wait to find out. This is all like a dream come true. And to share this day with my teammates and friends makes it even more special.”

Said Finnegan: “GAGE has been my home for so long, and Al and Armine have given me the chance to go on and compete at LSU, and I can’t wait. I like everything about the school; it just seemed like the perfect fit.”

Fong stood in the background as his gymnasts signed their letters and visited all the attendees.

“I feel like a proud father,” Fong said. “This is why we’re here. This is why Armine and I do what we do – for special moments like this.”