Cling­ing to nor­malcy, train­ing cen­ter for prospec­tive Olympians fi­nally yields

The Kansas City Star - - Sports - BY VAHE GREGORIAN vgre­go­[email protected]­star.com

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.”

RICH SUGG [email protected]­star.com

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.

JAMES WOOLDRIDGE Kansas City Star file

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.

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