Al Fong

1977 Meet Director - AAU Junior National Championship
1977 Meet Director - AAU Senior National Championship
1986 Meet Director - Western National Championship
1981-2002 Meet Director - Dragon Invitational
1986-Present Head USA Coach: Pacific Alliance-China, Germany DTP Cup, Catania Invitational-Italy, France/USA, Canada/Australia/USA, Pacific Alliance-Hawaii, World Sports Fair-Japan, Swiss Cup-Switzerland
1989 Asst. Coach – World Championship, Germany
2002 Asst. Coach – World Championship, Hungary
2003 Asst. Coach – World Championship, Anaheim
2004 USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year
2004 Personal Coach, Humphrey/McCool, Athens

(From "Second generation Chinese-American, Al Fong was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. A gymnast at Seattle’s YMCA, Fong earned a scholarship to Louisiana State University where he trained under two-time Olympian and three-time world champion Armando Vega.

After college, he worked at a national sports center in Arkansas before settling down to build his gymnastics dynasty in Blue Springs, Missouri.

Fong is extremely patriotic. "I feel lucky just to be here," Fong said, while telling how his father had been born in New York but taken back to China at age 3. He then returned to Seattle as an adult.

"I'm just so proud of Kansas City and our country," Fong said, "especially when one of my kids represents us."

Fong also has a strong sense of community. He's been offered lucrative nationwide speaking tours and two book deals. “I turned them all down,” he explains. “My heart is here in Blue Springs, and my goal is to help develop more talent and more Olympians right here in our community.”

Discovery Zone was a place where children and parents could enjoy time together in a variety of play. The first Discovery Zone FunCenter appeared in 1989 in Kansas City, Missouri. Ron Matsch and Al Fong, with physical fitness backgrounds, were founders.

Al’s wife, co-coach and partner is Armine Barutyan-Fong, originally from the former Soviet Union Republic of Armenia. As a gymnast, she was on the Armenian National Team for nine years and the Russian National Team for eight years. She was also the youngest athlete in Soviet history to win the prestigious “Master of Sport” from the Sports Committee of the Soviet Union.

The Fong Phenomenon

By Charles Holt
Kansas City Business Journal

June 1995

After 20 years of coaching budding gymnasts, Kansas City entrepreneur Al Fong feels he knows what makes kids tick.

"Kids love to run, jump, climb, slide and generally just go nuts without getting hurt or getting in trouble," the 42-year-old Fong said. "This is the place."

"The place" is the latest and largest of three Great American Gymnastic Express training and sports-fun centers that Fong, co-founder of the Discovery Zone indoor playgrounds and world-class coach, has opened in the Kansas City area.

GAGE-Overland Park at 9063 Bond opened in mid-May. Three Olympic gymnasts, Kim Zemeskal and Betty Okino of the United States and former Russian World Champion Svetlana Bouguinskaia, attended the event. Fong has coached many world-class gymnasts, including Christy Henrich, a top-flight gymnast from Blue Springs who died last summer of anorexia.

The Discovery Zones were for kids 12 and under, Fong said, while GAGE is geared toward all ages.

"Now we have something for everyone," he said.

Fong and partner Ron Matsch sold the Discovery Zone franchise in 1992 to Chicago-based Flynn Enterprises. Fong would not talk about the terms of the deal. But when he still owned them, each franchise reportedly sold for $435,000.

Formerly the home of the Discovery Zone warehouse/research and development center, and recently deemed a distressed building by city officials, GAGE-Overland Park required a $300,000 face-lift before opening for business.

The facility now boasts $200,000 in Olympic-caliber equipment, giant foam pits, in-ground trampolines and its newest attraction, "Bump City," which emulates the made-for-TV pseudo-sport American Gladiators.

"And don't forget the wall," said 10-year-old Jenny Davidson of Overland Park.

"The wall" -- officially called Monster Mountain -- is a 45-foot high, 5000-square-foot purple fiberglass edifice with rocks attached to it. Daring souls climb while harnessed in one of 15 available belay repelling stations.

Because GAGE-Overland Park is not on a heavily traveled road, Andy Triliak of Gregg Advertising said, his company's marketing strategy for GAGE has hinged on direct mail, the highly publicized grand opening and two television commercials set to begin airing this week.

Built on what Fong described as a "shoestring budget of $350,000," the 12,500-square-foot GAGE-Blue Springs features, among other items, two dance floors and a ropes obstacle course that participants brave while suspended 20 feet in the air.

Fong also owns a converted pull-barn in Blue Springs, used as an Olympic caliber training facility for his elite squad of competitive gymnasts.

GAGE's enrollment for the gymnastic classes usually runs about 1,000, said Jill McDonald, a facility coordinator who has 20 years of experience with the sport in the Kansas City area. "It swells during the Summer Olympics, of course. But other than that, it has remained pretty consistent."

Road to success

Three months before graduating in 1975 from Louisiana State University, where he trained under two-time Olympian and three-time world champion Armando Vega, Fong got an offer to run a gymnastics program for the Ichiban Sports Center in Rogersville, Ark.

"I really didn't know what I was going to do after graduation," Fong said.

Fong decided to take the gymnastics job because it included the chance to coach two Amateur Athletic Union teams competing on a national level.

Then about two years later, Fong visited a friend in Kansas City. He decided to stay and began coaching for his buddy's gymnastics club in Lee's Summit. Later, the pair had a falling out, and Fong had suddenly become a nomadic coach with about 150 kids in-tow.

One parent, Tom Reese, offered some business advice to the young coach.

"Tom told me, 'Look at it like this. You want the American dream -- the house, the car. . . . But you're never going to have it on a coach's salary,'" Fong said. "That just made something in my head click. I finally quit thinking with the coach's mentality that in order to win, everything must be sacrificed."

In 1979, Reese and a colleague, Dick Boris, chipped in $2,500 each, and helped Fong secure a $15,000 Small Business Administration loan that he used to rent a small building in Blue Springs and to furnish it with a minimal amount of equipment. Thus was born The Great American Gymnastics Express.

A fortunate discovery

While on holiday in Texas in the late 1980s, Fong stumbled upon a crude gymnasium filled with outdoor playground equipment.

On the way back to Kansas City, Fong envisioned a market for an essentially self-service sports fun-center that would require little overhead, minimal staffing and the potential for huge profits.

Fong ran his idea by his friend, Ron Matsch, whom Fong said was equally "mesmerized."

The two then mapped out a plan, designed their own equipment and gathered some investors. With $250,000, they bought an 8,000-square-foot facility in Lenexa and opened the first Discovery Zone indoor playground.

These days, Blockbuster Entertainment owns most of the nearly 300 Discovery Zones across the country. The company reported revenues from the playgrounds of $38.3 million in the second quarter of 1994.

The best thing about the deal was that it gave Fong more freedom to coach his team kids, he said. "It's kind of like when you're on the airplane and they tell you to take care of yourself first, and then your child if the oxygen masks come down."

Uneasy validation

Fong met Christy Henrich in 1980 when she enrolled at GAGE-Blue Springs at age 8. She quickly became a member of the Dragons, Fong's elite squad of competitive gymnasts.

In 1988, 16-year-old Henrich stood 4 feet 10 and weighed 90 pounds when a U.S. judge, at a meet in Budapest, remarked that she would need to lose weight to make the Olympic team.

Henrich's family, coaches and friends felt that the judge's comment triggered her long struggle with anorexia, an eating disorder. She lost that fight on July 26, 1994, at age 22. When she died, she weighed 61 pounds.

The Dragons' fierce level of training – up to seven hours a day -- combined with Fong's obsession with training champions -- 10 Dragons have made the U.S. national team in recent years -- may have contributed to Henrich's death, some said. He staunchly denies it.

"It hurts at first, especially when you're not used to dealing with the press," Fong said, recalling the deluge of international media that descended upon him following Henrich's death.

"CNN, the BBC, The New York Times, they were all beating down my door," he said. "But they were all painting the wrong picture. I wanted to scream, 'I'm innocent, I'm the one who discovered it (her anorexia) and tried to stop it.' I never weighed her one day in her life."

Fong said that ultimately the negative press didn't hurt his business, but "validated" him as a world-class coach.

"People seem to remember only that they saw me on TV," Fong said.

Always the patriot

A second generation Chinese-American who was born and raised in Seattle, Fong is extremely patriotic, hence the Great American portion of the gymnastics club's name.

"I feel lucky just to be here," Fong said, while telling how his father had been born in New York but taken back to China at age 3. He then returned to Seattle as an adult.

Fong also has a strong sense of community. GAGE regularly works with the Special Olympics, the DARE drug prevention program, Sherwood Special Education and the Blue Springs school district.

He hopes to open a GAGE-type facility in the inner city soon to give disadvantaged youth exposure to gymnastics.

"I'm just so proud of Kansas City and our country," Fong said, "especially when one of my kids represents us."

Fong Builds Tradition in Blue Springs

By Bill Althaus
The Examiner (Eastern Jackson County Missouri Online)

November 22, 1999

Twenty years ago, an upstart young man from Seattle visited Blue Springs

He had a dream.

He wasn't quite sure what it was, but he knew that he wanted to be a part of a special community.

He wanted to make it a better place, while developing something that people would talk about and take an interest in.

He loved sports and he loved people.

He had an abundant supply of energy and enough inner strength and spirit to believe that he would do just about whatever he wanted to do.

Now, Al Fong is one of the most respected gymnastic coaches in the country.

He has developed world champions, members of United States national teams and possibly Olympians.

And he is celebrating 20 years of success and glory at Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs ? and the occasional heartache and disappointment.

With a cell phone in one hand and stack of news releases and personal notes in the other, Fong sat down in a Blue Springs restaurant to talk about his life in the world of competitive gymnastics.

"I got started in gymnastics back at a YMCA in Seattle, when gymnastics weren't cool ? especially for a guy," Fong said, grinning at the memory. "I loved all sports, but I really liked gymnastics."

He eventually earned a gymnastics scholarship to Louisiana State University (LSU) and went on to run one of the first national sports centers in the nation.

"It was in Rogers, Arkansas, when it wasn't Rogers, Arkansas, the way you think of it today with Wal-Mart and all its employees," Fong said.

"Basically, it was a little hick town and I thought, 'What's a cool guy like me doing here?' " he added, jokingly. "But it turned out to be a great move. I ran the Ichiban Sports Center, which was owned by a guy with more money than he knew what to do with."

He brought in national judo competition, the Virginia Slims Tennis Tour and two national AAU gymnastics competitions.

"It was great, especially working with the gymnasts," he said. "While I was there, I met a guy from Kansas City, who had a daughter who was a very good gymnast."

Because of that chance meeting, Fong decided to say goodbye to Rogers and hello to Blue Springs.

"I was young and I thought, 'What the heck, I'm going to Kansas City,' " he said. "From the time I arrived in Blue Springs, I loved the community, the people, the size of the community ? everything about it."

And the community embraced Fong.

He opened a small gymnastics studio on U.S. 40. Then, in 1985, he moved it to the familiar site on Jefferson, the north outer road of Interstate 70 just west of Missouri 7.

"Blue Springs is simply the greatest community on earth to come in and start a business," he said. "Back when I first came here, the sport of gymnastics wasn't as popular as it is now.

"Then Cathy Rigby burst on the scene and America fell in love with her."

And Mary Lou Retton and the Olympic gold medal women's team of 1984 followed and every little girl in the world seemed to be running around in leotards and dreaming of winning Olympic gold.

One such youngster was Christy Henrich, a Fort Osage High School graduate who starred for Fong and nearly reached her dream of making the U.S. Olympic team.

But she just missed out on making the team and later developed an eating disorder that led to her death.

"There have been a lot of highs here," he said, picking his words carefully, "but that was certainly the low."

Fong was accused of mentally and physically demeaning his star student and was even ordered to stay away from her funeral by her distraught family.

"I was getting beat up by everyone," he said. "I think I had more support locally, because people here knew I would never do what everyone was saying I had done.

"But internationally, it was tough."

He would get accosted in airports.

"People would say, 'You're that coach, aren't you?'

"I would never abuse a student. How could I be a successful coach if I was abusing students. I know that a judge made a comment (about Henrich's physique) and I don't know if that triggered the problem or not."

Fong knows that whatever his students accomplish, he will always be associated with that tragic incident.

But he says, with great assurance, "I have a clear conscience. I can sleep at night because I know that I was not a part of that problem."

Today, the gymnastic world seems to be smiling at Fong.

He has two hugely successful Great American Gymnastics Express locations – the other is located in Overland Park, Kan. – and a stable of promising young stars.

"I think he's the best coach in the country," said Diane Stockard, a teacher at the Great American Gymnastics Express. "I don't know of a coach who cares more for his students or his staff.

"Youngsters can travel all over the country to find a great coach, but local gymnasts have the best coach right in their back yard."

Last week, Oak Grove High School senior Alisha Robinson, a veteran Fong student, signed a letter of intent for a full scholarship to the University of Missouri.

Last year, Jill Collins, one of the most recruited athletes in the history of Blue Springs High School, signed with the University of Washington.

Two more local gymnasts ? Amanda Stroud and Terin Humphrey ? are now competing in the world-class Elite level and made the Junior International USA team.

"I can't tell you how much pride I take to see young people from our school get full college scholarships," he said. "That means more to me than developing a national champion, because those young people are getting something that will help them for a lifetime."

But in typical Fong fashion, he steps out of the spotlight when talking about their success.

"They have to work so hard, and put in so many hours," he said. "No one can imagine what it takes to be a successful, competitive gymnast. Parents can't make them do it.

"Coaches certainly can't make them do it.

"It has to come from within."

And a strength and purpose that comes from within will continue to drive and motivate this master coach, businessman and community leader.

Whether he's working with a class of newcomers or a future national champion, Fong is going to give that individual his best effort.

He's been doing that for 20 years, and there's no reason to stop now.

GAGE Coaches Honored Nationally

Fong, Barutyan-Fong Share Award

By Bill Althaus
The Examiner

June 30, 2004

Getting their first Olympic gymnast wasn't the only honor that Al Fong and his wife, Armine Barutyan-Fong, brought home with them this week.

The Fongs, owners of Great American Gymnastic Express in Blue Springs, were named the Co-Coaches of the Year by the United States of America Gymnastics (USAG) governing body.

"It caught us totally off guard," Barutyan-Fong said Tuesday after returning from Anaheim, Calif., site of the U.S Olympic Trials, where GAGE gymnasts Courtney McCool and Terin Humphrey competed for berths on the U.S. women's Olympic team. "It happened Friday night at The Pond, and I still don't believe it."

The Fongs were instructed to go to the podium to take part in a surprise celebration for another coach.

Little did they know that it was simply a ploy to get them in the middle of the arena for the big announcement.

"This is special, very, very special," Fong said, "because it is voted on by our peers. I had no idea they were going to give out a Coach of the Year award, let alone did I ever dream I would be sharing it with my wife."

McCool and Humphrey then solidified the voting process by taking second and seventh, respectively, at the Trials.

The second-place finish earned McCool a virtual lock on an Olympic berth while Humphrey has been invited to a two-day selection camp in Houston where the final four members and two alternates for the U.S. team will be selected.

"Al and Armine mean so much to us," McCool said. "After each event this weekend, they were there to support us and help us."

Added Humphrey: "We wouldn't be where we are without Al and Armine and all the coaches at GAGE."

While hundreds of young gymnasts are at GAGE this week for the Dragon Camp, it's work as usual for McCool, Humphrey and the Fongs.

"We can't have any distractions for the next two weeks," Barutyan-Fong said. "We must get both girls ready for the camp. It's been a team effort all along and will continue to be a team effort."