Clinging to normalcy, training center for prospective Olympians finally yields
Technically, the GAGE Center that has hatched multiple U.S. Olympic gymnasts and world team members — and is on the verge of launching more — is located at 1101 Northwest Jefferson Street in Blue Springs.
But on Tuesday, Al Fong’s enterprise of 40-plus years more aptly could be described as sitting squarely at the crossroads of America, a microcosm of the sorts of stuff we’re all grappling with amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Fong texted later to say the gym would close Wednesday — another small business ensnared in the crisis in an action described on its website as “in the best interest of our community.”
“It bothered me that everyone in the country is trying to cooperate — and I didn’t do my share,” Fong said in a text message Wednesday afternoon.
But the day before, Fong, business manager Karla Grimes and the onlooking mothers of 2019 U.S. nationals medalists (at Sprint Center)
Kara Eaker and Leanne Wong provided a real-time glimpse at the fluid dynamics.
“We’re walking on a tightrope here,” said Fong, who along with his wife, Armine Barutyan, coaches current Olympic contenders Eaker, Wong and Aleah Finnegan among scores of other gymnasts of varying levels and ages.
Or at least a balance beam.
Determined to cling to some shreds of normalcy and control … even while acknowledging the constant flux that included the news late Tuesday that a second person in eastern Jackson County had tested positive for the virus. Trying to reconcile what
be done with what might seem like mere guidelines — such as applying at least some level of social distancing and, in this case, at least doubling the number of times per day the facility is sprayed down with commercialgrade disinfectant.
Keeping somehow focused on our senses of purpose in life, most prominently in this instance the 2020 Tokyo Olympics still scheduled for July 24 through Aug. 9 … tenuous as that might seem now.
And sifting away “hysteria,” as Fong put it, enough to be able to think.
Even as he sought testing himself after a recent trip to Seattle only to be denied since none was available, in itself an ongoing part of the national story. Other than a dry cough he attributes to talking too much, Fong reports no symptoms.
In one burst, Fong seemed to make all the confounding points at once.
“You’ve just got to go on; we train normally,” he said, promptly adding, “Our compass has definitely been altered. It’s definitely gone haywire.”
So Fong tried to shrug off the abrupt irrelevance now of what he considers a beacon: an oversized calendar of events on a center wall in the facility, the calendar of competitions that represents the road map of one-, twoand four-year plans towards the Olympics.
“It drives us … and now that calendar is meaningless; it’s absolutely meaningless right now,” he said. “And it’s in limbo.”
The limbo carried it with some training challenges when it comes to peaking at the right time.
Because, for instance, what is the right time with so many events canceled or postponed?
“For what purpose? There’s no purpose (right now),” Fong said. “There’s no deadline, and if you don’t have a deadline you’re not going to put your best effort in.”
To be exact, as of the Monday revisions of the USA Gymnastics calendar, all 13 events scheduled in April and May have been either canceled, postponed or marked TBD. Or “not sending athletes” when it comes to the April 4-5 Tokyo All-Around World Cup … which subsequently was canceled Tuesday.
To make up for that hazy schedule, Fong figured that working on adding skills would continue to keep the gymnasts engaged with the notion that the scheduled U.S. Championships (June 4-7 in Fort Worth) and U.S. Olympic Trials (June 2528 in St. Louis) still remain in place.
“(There is) nothing more fun than learning new skills; that kind of takes your mind off the subject,” said Fong, later adding, “We’re working always for tomorrow.”
Even when it’s hard to know what tomorrow brings.
Fong could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday night or Wednesday.
But on Tuesday as he pondered the possibility of the Olympics being postponed or canceled, he considered the havoc the virus has unleashed in Asia and said, “How many people are in that area that go back and forth that know people that know people that know people? … It’s a mess.”
Despite the misgivings and mixed feelings about it all, Fong and Grimes believed they were providing a vital service to their elite and recreational athletes (though they reported a 50-percent attendance reduction among recreational ones on Monday) while not violating the local order to limit gatherings to 10 people.
While there were at times more than 10 people in the gym Tuesday, for instance, they noted the sprawling 25,000-foot area. And they cited adherence to USA Gymnastics’ message sent Monday:
“While we cannot mandate clubs’ decisions, we strongly urge all members to review the latest CDC guidance, to be extremely careful about any use of your facilities and, when in doubt, to err on the side of caution and care by severely limiting any practices or activities.”
As they observed practice from a deck inside the center on Tuesday, Eaker’s mother, Katherine, and Wong’s mother, Bee Ding, thought about the priority of balancing safety with their daughter’s dreams.
Beyond taking their cues from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, each had her own informed vantages:
Bee Ding’s background is as a research scientist, and her husband, Marco Wong, is the medical director of a biotech company who has his M.D. and Ph.D.
Eaker’s oldest daughter is U.S. Army Recruiting Command Surgeon Lt. Col. Katrina Walters, who has been providing coronavirus updates in her work role from Fort Knox.
“She’s keeping me up to date, too,” said Katherine Eaker, adding that she had been reassured that GAGE had been a step ahead of everything she was hearing from her daughter.
In Walters’ most recent public update on Monday, she spoke in part of the reason social distancing is crucial to prevent an overwhelming of our health care system.
While stating this isn’t a “reason to panic,” Walters added, “I would just like to emphasize that everybody can do their part … and prevention goes a long way.”
Her mother knows this, of course. But she also knows these girls, conditioned to being at this gym from 1:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week, aren’t going to proms and parties and dances and on spring break.
They train and go home and go to school. And get up and do it again.
“That’s their life. Take that into account,” she said.
Suggesting that keeps them insulated in a sense, she nonetheless added, “Maybe just wishful thinking on my part. I don’t know.”
Now that’s another wish left behind as the new abnormal seizes control for who knows how long?
Eaker could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but on Tuesday she worried how the girls could keep up with appropriate workouts without GAGE.
“The kind of training that they do you can’t do at home,” she said. “You can try to keep them in shape, but you would fall so far behind.”
And Fong and Grimes are left to enact and follow up on their emergency planning to try to keep whole 13-15 full-time employees.
“Where are we? Where do we need to be?” Fong said. “What money can we borrow? What (does) insurance cover for an interruption of business.
“We’ve been doing that.”
Then there’s the other contingency for the Olympic contenders in the event the Olympics are canceled.
Fong wants them to think this way: “‘I was this close, and then the virus hit us. But if it hadn’t hit us, I would have made that team. They have to believe it, so you win without really winning.’”
While the only winning now seems to be in washing your hands and keeping your distance as we all try to navigate the tightrope.
“We’ve lived a lot of things,” he said, “but we’ve never lived this before.”
Under the watchful eye of coach Al Fong, Leanne Wong perfects her routine on the balance beam during a recent practice at Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs. The 15-year-old gymnast , who attends Blue Valley High School, recently won the American Cup in Greensboro, North Carolina, and has her sights set on making the U.S. Olympic team and earning a trip to Tokyo in 2020.
Aleah Finnegan, right, Leanne Wong, center, and Kara Eaker of GAGE get ready to compete in the second night of the Women’s USA Gymnastics National Championships as Armine Barutyan-Fong coaches in 2019 at the Sprint Center.