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.
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.
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 performing during happier times at the 1987 World Sports Fair:
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: