GAGE gymnasts Wong, Eaker eye Olympic berths at U.S. Olympic Trials

Bill Althaus
The Examiner
Leanne Wong competes in the floor exercise during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships Sunday in Fort Worth, Texas. Wong, who trains at GAGE in Blue Springs, finished third on the floor and took fifth in the all-around. Now she hopes to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team at next week's U.S. Olympic Trials in St. Louis.

As Leanne Wong prepared for her routine on the vault inside Blue Springs' Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE), all the younger gymnasts who had been working at various posts around the facility stopped, and ventured over to where the Olympic hopeful would be performing. 

"Come on Leanne! You've got this!" they cried, as they clapped and cheered for the Overland Park, Kan., gymnast who has trained at GAGE for years. 

GAGE coaches, the husband and wife tandem of Al Fong and Armine Barutyan, are doing their best to create an atmosphere that might replicate what Wong and teammate Kara Eaker might experience June 24-27 at the U.S. Olympic Trials at The Dome at America's Center in St. Louis.

Kara Eaker trains on the balance beam at Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs. The Grain Valley High School student, after finishing 10th in the all-around and fifth in the beam at the U.S. Championships, looks to move up and earn an Olympic berth in the U.S. Olympic Trials next week in St. Louis.

The enthusiastic youngsters did their best to create the same energy Eaker, a resident of Grain Valley, will experience at the Olympic trials. 

"We're getting close, so close," a grinning Fong said as he rubbed his hands together. "Our girls are used to performing in front of big crowds and we want to give them an edge if we can." 

Wong, 17, and Eaker, 18, recently performed well at the U.S. Championships in Fort Worth, Texas. Wong was fifth in the all-around at 110.15, which included a third-place finish in the floor exercise (27.8). 

Eaker, a Grain Valley High School student who helped the U.S. earn the team gold medal at the 2019 World Championships, took 10th in the all-around at 109.05 and finished fifth on the balance beam (27.9) at the U.S. Championships.  

They all believe that having the Olympic Trials in St. Louis will be special because so many local fans, friends and family members will be attendance. 

"It's going to be great to have the trials in St. Louis so our family and friends can come watch us," Wong said, "but we have to treat it like any other meet. We've dreamed about going to the Olympics for so many years – and now, the trials are just a few days away." 

This year's Olympic team will be made up of just four gymnasts, and the process to select them is intriguing.

GAGE gymnast Kara Eaker, left, a Grain Valley High School student, talks over balance beam strategy with coach Armine Barutyan during a recent practice session. Eaker finished fifth on the beam at the U.S. Championships and hopes to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team at the trials next week in St. Louis.

“They’re going to try and come up with the four strongest athletes they think will go all around," Fong said. "Then they’re going to try to pick those athletes who have a shot at being a gold medalist in an individual event. And as you saw today, we made some mistakes – but this is where you want to make those mistakes, because they are so costly at the trials." 

As little as one-tenth of a point could be the difference between going to the Summer Games in Tokyo or returning home. 

“If you lift the leg up because you’re off balance and then you catch your balance, that’s three-tenths," Fong said. "If you fall, that’s one point. If you grab the beam, that’s five-tenths. There are so many determining factors that go into this." 

One big factor is the simple fact that the Summer Games were supposed to happen in the pandemic-stricken year of 2020

"It seems like an eternity for Kara and Leanne," Fong explained. "We were preparing for last year and the pandemic kept us from having the Olympics. Now, we are so close to the trials and the games this summer in Japan, and believe me, we will be ready." 

"When we get to the trials, we have to focus on our performances and not worry about what the other gymnasts are doing," said Eaker, who has signed to compete with the University of Utah after her Olympic pursuit is over. "We will take it one day at a time. We're ready mentally and physically. 

"Al and Armine are amazing to work with, and they will have us ready to go. We've waited a long time for this, and now, it's all real. Our family and friends will be there to cheer us on, and that will make it special, too."