Posts Tagged ‘Al Fong’

Hong dissatisfied with GAGE

October 29, 2008
Former GAGE gymnast Ivana Hong came oh-so-close to her Olympic dream.

Former GAGE gymnast Ivana Hong came oh-so-close to her Olympic dream.

Ivana Hong is not happy with her GAGE experience.

Hong, who left Al and Armine Fong and apparently showed up at the recent Karolyi camp without either coach or gym, and her family gave interviews to NBC Action News, disclosing that Hong had fractured her right ankle before the Olympic Trials, and Fong, apparently reverting to his less compassionate days, told her to ignore it.

“They kept telling me that nothing was wrong with my foot,” Ivana said. “I knew what was wrong with it, but I wasn’t going to be like ‘I have a fracture in my foot and I’m not gonna train.’”

Fong discouraged Ivana from seeking medical treatment. Against his wishes, Ivana’s mother took her to a doctor, who confirmed she had a fractured ankle.

With the Olympics looming, Ivana thought she had no choice but to trudge on.

Anne Phillips, who linked to this article on Gymnastike, prefaced it by noting “it’s a little dramatic”. It is, a bit — the article’s refernce to Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which recounts both the stories of Fong’s ill-fated gymnasts Julissa Gomez and Christy Henrich, is what Ivana’s story is made to sound like here. But the book was published 13 years ago and, many would argue, represents a different era in American gymnastics.

Or does it? Hong’s claims that Fong turned away from her are disturbing. Fong didn’t exactly sound enthusiastic about their Olympic Trials preparations either. Instead of denying that he gave up on her, Fong contends Hong “flat-out quit.”

Whether it was her foot injury or not, many may say that Hong, a designated Olympic alternate, was simply the seventh-best gymnast in the U.S. this summer. Despite her third-place finish at the 2007 Pan-American Games, Hong’s routines weren’t received with much enthusiasm at the 2007 World Championships. Even in top form, she was still a bubble gymnast, and it can be argued that there was no place for her in the top five on any event.

While they may regret it, no one forced the Hong family to move from California, especially as there are many top-flight gyms in the state (All-Olympia, home to Mattie Larson and Samantha Shapiro, springs immediately to mind.) Still, if Ivana wasn’t given the training they were promised (and paid for) they certainly should complain.

The article does state that Hong plans to continue toward 2012.

Related: Al Fong’s second chance

Recent U.S. camp report on L.A. Times

October 22, 2008

Recent U.S. training camp rumors confirmed by Diane Pucin, who covers gymnastics for the L.A. Times:

The assignments that USA Gymnastics announced for upcoming international competitions give some indication as to who is starting to be groomed for 2012 teams in London.

For example Glen Ishino of Santa Ana and Danell Leyva of Miami are being sent to the Pan American Gymnastics Union Individual Event Championships in Rosario, Argentina, Nov. 19-24.

Ishino won the 2008 junior all-around title and is considered a potential star for future U.S. men’s teams. Ishino is a freshman at California. Leyva is young enough to have been on the 14- to 15-year-old national team this year, but good enough to have finished eighth on the high bar at senior nationals

That’s just the beginning. Jana Bieger is apparently sticking around for now, as is Ivana Hong, despite showing at the recent Karolyi camp no longer affiliated with Al Fong and GAGE.

Word is Hong, who lived in California before moving to Missouri to train with the Fongs in 2004, may be heading to All Olympia, where Mattie Larson and Samantha Shapiro train. Seems like it would be a good fit for Hong, who like Larson and Shapiro is known for her artistry.

Utah’s April Fools article

April 1, 2008

The April Fool’s edition is a tradition at many college newspapers. On April 1, student journalists fill a real version of their newspaper with fake news. It’s a great opportunity to be creative in places where “news” stories are often less than fascinating.

The Daily Utah Chronicle has run an April Fool’s piece today on the Utah women’s gymnastics team, highlighting Sarah Shire’s departure from the team last season.

(more…)

Al Fong’s second chance

September 27, 2007

Someday, Al Fong’s life may become the subject of a made-for-TV movie.

Given this ESPN.com article, it seems like a good candidate. Fong, who grew up in a working class family in Seattle, has seen it how good — and how ugly — this sport can get.

When his protegees Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool made the 2004 Olympic team, a dream that Fong had carried for 25 years was realized. At the time, people said what lovely athletes and people these girls were, but curiously little about their coaches, particularly Fong. Those who knew the sport, as Rick McCharles points out in an excellent article from his Gymnastics Coaching blog, probably wondered how Al had managed to turn himself and his program around after hitting rock bottom.

A more nurturing Al Fong helped Courtney McCool onto the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.

ESPN puts it this way:

Gymnastics, of course, is notorious for fanatical, overbearing coaches, but the old Fong was the worst. He pushed. He insulted. He started practices at the crack of dawn and late at night. Along the way, his monomania built a group of overachievers who positioned him as the surprise spoiler of the Seoul Olympics.

In 1988, Fong had two Olympic contenders: 15-year-old Julissa Gomez, and Christy Henrich, who made up in dedication whatever she lacked in skill. Both came to personify what was wrong with the sport during the mid 80s and early 90s and will probably always exist to some extent in gymnastics.

Julissa Gomez

Gomez was paralyzed when she crashed into the vaulting horse during the warmup at the 1988 World Sports Fair in Japan. Her shaky technique on her Yurchenko had been noted for some time, but Fong, her personal coach, allowed her to keep training and competing it. Gomez, who suffered brain damage in the accident, never recovered sufficiently to leave her bed. She was cared for by her parents at home until 1991, when she succumbed to infection and died.

Henrich was ninth at the 1988 Olympic Trials, missing the Olympic team by only two places. She appeared to be on the rise at the 1989 U.S. Championships, where she was second in the all-around.

Christy Henrich, 1989 World Championships Event Finals, Uneven Bars (She placed fourth):

But while competing at an international meet sometime after, a judge told her that if she ever wanted to make an Olympic team, she needed to lose weight. This corroborated with what she had been hearing from Fong and her other coaches at Great American Gymnastics Express, so Henrich applied her characteristic dedication to losing weight. The result, to make a long and very painful story short, was her death in 1994 of organ failure brought about by severe anorexia. At the time she died, she weighed less than 50 pounds.

Christy Henrich as a healthy gymnast

Christy Henrich performing during happier times at the 1987 World Sports Fair:

Christy Henrich with her boyfriend during the early 90s, at an event to raise money for her medical costs.

For any coach, this is career-ending stuff, or so one would think. But sometime during what must have been bleak years in the mid-90s, Fong began to turn the situation around. His first success was Amanda Stroud, who placed 12th at the 2000 Olympic Trials but impressed everybody with her excellent form.

Amanda Stroud, 2000 Olympic Trials, Day 2, Floor Exercise:

Much of Fong’s resurgence should probably be credited to his wife, Armine Barutyan Fong, who came to work at GAGE during the mid-90s. Armine Barutyan was one of the standouts on a Soviet team that had the best gymnasts in the world during the 1980s, but was ostracized because of her Armenian heritage. Armine was profiled recently by The Associated Press in an article that ran in The New York Times.

Barutyan recalled when, despite her top performances, she was left off the national team for the biggest trips. Once, after the team returned from an international meet at which Barutyan finished second, the team had an audience in front of a Soviet government official.

“Who finished first?” the official asked.

“Svetlana Boginskaya,” the coach of the gymnastics program responded, speaking of the Russian gymnast, one of Barutyan’s contemporaries, who went on to win four medals at the 1988 Olympics.

“And who finished second?” the official said.

“Not one of us,” the coach responded.

Two years after Stroud’s performance at the Olympic Trials, Terin Humphrey made her debut at the U.S. Nationals to favorable reviews. Humphrey wasn’t perhaps, as naturally talented as someone like Carly Patterson. But she was known as a hard worker and a humble person, a quality that won her an enormous amount of fans before the 2004 Olympic Games.

“We were a little timid about going to Al’s gym at first,” Terin says. “We’d heard the stories. But when we met him, we felt like he was a great person.”

Terin Humphrey’s elegant floor routine was choreographed by Armine.

Terin Humphrey, 2004 Olympic Trials, Day 2, Floor Exercise:

Between Al and Armine, it’s easy to see the similarities to Bela and Martha Karolyi, who despite their Romanian heritage are front and center as the most successful American gymnastics coaches of all time. During the U.S. Championships in San Jose a month ago, one of NBC’s commentators remarked in passing that as a coach, Armine Barutyan-Fong seems like a younger Martha — if a single toe is out of line, her gymnast is repeating the move until she gets it right. Makes one wonder if Armine may be being groomed for the National Team Coordinator spot when Martha, like her husband, someday decides that enough is enough.

And GAGE’s fortunes have risen: Today, all their athletes are known for exquisite form and wonderful choreography. Just take a look at Ivana Hong’s lovely floor set from the U.S. Championships.

Ivana Hong, 2007 U.S. Championships Day 1, Floor Exercise:

As for Fong, although his temper has apparently cooled during the past 15 years, his goals, as he expressed to ESPN, haven’t changed at all.

“I want GAGE to be the epicenter of gymnastics in this country,” Fong declares.

Other GAGE Greats

Courtney McCool, 2004 U.S. Championships Day 1, Balance Beam:

Sarah Shire, 2004 Cottbus, Floor Exercise:


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