Commentary

ESPN The Magazine: Al Fong's iron fist

Updated: September 19, 2007, 2:14 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN The Magazine

If the old Al Fong suddenly appeared in this brightly colored gym on the outskirts of Kansas City, he'd recognize a few things: the shaved head, the earring, the black gloves and the coach's stance -- arms crossed, eyes betraying nothing. He'd notice the Olympic rings painted on the wall and figure he'd muscled his dream to fruition, the one fueled by the struggle of his immigrant parents. And he would observe a young girl, 15-year-old Olympic hopeful Sarah DeMeo, stumbling through a bar routine and surely appreciate her quivering bottom lip.

But when the old Al Fong heard the soothing encouragement come out of his own mouth -- "D, are you all right? Just the basics" -- he'd doubtless come unglued. Bushy eyebrows raised in disgust, he'd insult and scream and try to shove those consoling words back where they came from. And when he caught a glimpse of his new and improved self smiling at the giggling gymnasts tossing foam blocks, he'd wonder what the hell had gone wrong. The old Al Fong -- whose overbearing ways almost cost him everything -- would never have run a gym in which laughter was tolerated.

Al Fong
Q. Sakamaki for ESPN The MagazineA calmer Al Fong works with a gymnast at his Great American Gymnastics Express facility in Kansas City.

What gives? Inside the new Al Fong's Great American Gymnastics Express, or GAGE, girls move in a pattern as familiar and regular as ocean currents, pausing to twist, lap, roll, flex, tuck, swing, dance, laugh and cry -- a Gulf Stream of motion and emotion. The ebb and flow is harnessed by the quiet mentoring of Al and his wife and co-coach, Armine. Together, they groomed Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool to win silver medals in Athens, earning Al and his wife the title of USA Gymnastics' 2004 Coach of the Year. Over the past few years, hopefuls from all over the country, including DeMeo and Ivana Hong (a bronze medalist at the most recent Pan Am Games), have flocked to GAGE to prepare to take their best shot at 2008.

"I think Al is headed in that direction again," says Marta Karolyi, women's team coordinator at USA Gymnastics. "He'll probably place somebody on the next Olympic team."

So, with apologies to his former self, Al Fong has learned the hard way that sometimes you need to let girls be girls. But he also knows that when it's time to push he will push, because underneath it all he is a man hardwired to drive to the brink, to see dreams as something never achieved, only chased.

So why not let the laughter fly?

GAGE operates out of an unfinished 25,000-square-foot building just off a quiet Missouri highway. "I want GAGE to be the epicenter of gymnastics in this country," Fong declares. A fully functional facility -- plenty big enough to train two Olympic medalists but not big enough for Fong's ultimate goal of becoming the American Bela Karolyi -- sits unused next door.

This temple to American gymnastics can ensure Fong's legacy, if it doesn't become his undoing first. He finished acquiring the land on which the new GAGE sits in 2004 and broke ground less than a year later -- before getting approved for the construction loan. "I thought, 'Let's just get started,'" he says. "I could feel 2008 knocking on the door."

Never one to stand still, Fong spent all he had to get the backhoes rolling. But over the next year, as GAGE went up, bank after bank turned him down, 30 in all, each more concerned with the bottom line than with Olympic chances. Despite a gymful of girls with parents paying well for lessons, Fong had to clean out his savings and borrow against his mother's retirement to keep the lights on.

"I am penniless," he says. "It's all in there." And as he sank every last dollar into the building, Fong knew his restless ambition could torpedo both his and his girls' Beijing hopes. It was a surprising gamble, given the depths from which he'd risen.

A few miles down the road stands a doggy day-care center, the original GAGE. Fong opened it in 1979, and for several years it was just a humble building housing lofty ideas. Fong can tell you where the front desk and the mats used to be, but he has other memories, too. Like of the awful chain reaction of screaming followed by guilt followed by headaches. So he rarely visits. The new Al Fong doesn't like to face his old self.

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.

Then two of his gymnasts died.

That's right, two girls died. The new Al Fong doesn't like to think about that much, and definitely doesn't want it to keep popping up in every story about him -- but he knows it always will.

The first one, 15-year-old Julissa Gomez, was in Japan at the last tune-up before the 1988 Olympic trials. She tried a difficult and, if done wrong, deadly vault; Fong had told Gomez she needed it in her arsenal to have a chance. But she came up short, slamming her head against the unforgiving hunk of wood and leather, breaking her neck. Those who were there still have visions of Fong, unsure of what to do. But there was nothing to do. Gomez was paralyzed. She died three years later.

Another of his gymnasts, Christy Henrich, missed making that 1988 team by 1/10th of a point. Her nickname was E.T.: Extra Tough. In Henrich, Fong had found a mirror image of himself, someone who outworked the more talented kids. She was skilled, but mostly she had heart.

Missing out on Seoul meant Henrich pushed even harder. But by 1991, anorexia had whittled her down to 61 pounds. She died of multiple organ failure three years later, at 22. Before she died, Henrich told reporters that Fong had contributed to her eating disorder by calling her names like Pillsbury Doughboy. A book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan, cast the tough coach as a villain. Fong steadfastly denied the allegations -- "I don't even know what the Pillsbury Doughboy is," he says -- but the damage was done: "I was the poster boy for everything gone wrong in gymnastics."

Al Fong
Q. Sakamaki for ESPN The MagazineAl Fong grew up in a working-class family in Seattle.

He might not have been guilty, but he was hardly innocent. And overnight he had nothing. The best athletes at GAGE left for other gyms, and without elite gymnasts to train -- and with his reputation tarnished -- Fong was relegated to teaching after-school programs, a Bill Parcells explaining blitzes to Pop Warner kids. Season after season, as Fong went about his work, he burned up inside. Over time, though, a new man slowly bloomed. In exile, he came to see that his dreams belonged not to him, but to the girls.

He didn't realize this on his own. If the old Al Fong were watching, he'd puke.

It's a busy afternoon at GAGE; practice is about to start. Fong, standing near the vault runway, looks serene. A gold yin-yang necklace slips out of his collar. He looks down at it, then across the gym at Armine. "My wife," he says.

She gave it to him, and it's the perfect gift. Just as there is a light and dark of gymnastics, there are two sides to Fong: before and after Armine. "She softened him quite a bit," says Amanda Stroud, one of the few gymnasts to train with Fong before and after Armine arrived. "She made him see what he was doing, made him think."

When Al and Armine first met, they each had a hole to fill. She was a former Soviet-bloc gymnast looking for a place to pass along her craft. He was a disgraced coach, clinging to a tattered career. Then, in 1996, not long after Armine arrived, their future walked through the door. Her name was Terin Humphrey, from nearby Bates City, Mo., and she wanted to be a gymnast. A coach never forgets the look of talent.

In the first moments of viewing Humphrey, Fong knew he'd been presented with the kind of athlete he'd never had before. When he sat down with the 9-year-old and her parents, he used the word Olympics. The Humphreys were blown away, but they were also cautious. "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." Still, her mom, Lisa, came to the gym every day to keep an eye on her daughter. Eventually, she got a job there. She says she has yet to see the monster from the stories.

By the time Humphrey arrived, Fong was already seeing he couldn't do it all alone. He needed Armine, inside the gym and out. Before long, the two were more than co-workers. Armine was the daughter of working-class Armenians, a first-class gymnast who, at 11, was the youngest ever in the Soviet Union to be named a "Master of Sport." In her teens, she won gold in numerous international events, all the while quietly enduring physical and emotional abuse from a hard-driving coach. When Al heard the stories of that man, he thought of himself; he began to understand how he'd hurt the girls he'd pushed too hard. "She absolutely changed me," he says.

Some people, of course, refuse to believe the transformation. Henrich's mother said not long ago that Fong still makes her skin crawl. And, in the gymnastics community, his old rep sticks. "People who knew him during his first rise still view him that way," says Stroud. "There are a lot of people who have no concept of how he is now."

One visit to Fong's gym, though, shows it isn't a gulag anymore. "There is no yelling or screaming," he says. "If anybody who knew me 20 years ago saw this, they'd say 'Bulls----.'" But the old Al Fong has not gone away forever. Sometimes traces of the old coach poke through. And it's hard to watch.

Inside GAGE one afternoon this spring, an 11-year-old couldn't hit a bar maneuver.

"That's not right," Fong yelled. She made a pig face to the girls around her, who tittered. "If you're not committed to hitting these, I understand, but you're shooting for the wrong level," he said, lowering his voice. "Stay at a level where it doesn't matter. But it's not an elite level. You're not a kid anymore."

The drill continued, but the chastised girl had vanished, crying, no doubt, after realizing that her friends were about to leave her behind.

If the old Al Fong could see the new Al Fong, searching for a way to save his gym, he'd see himself as a child in a working-class Seattle home. He'd see his father and mother asleep, exhausted, heads on the table, surrounded by stacks of bills and a worn abacus. Eddie and Lilly Fong, first-generation Chinese-Americans, eventually lost their little grocery store, and their child grew into a man while watching his father toil from 7 to 2 at a local racetrack, from 2 to 8 at an auto-parts store and until early morning as a security guard. Eddie slept three hours a night. Fong remembers the day his dad finally paid all the creditors, plus interest, and he remembers the day a few years later when his dad dropped dead. Heart attack, doctors said. But really, his dad had worked himself to death.

When Eddie crashed, Fong decided he'd push even harder than his father to succeed. He learned gymnastics at the Seattle YMCA and earned a scholarship to LSU. Not long after he graduated, he opened his first GAGE gym, with scarce resources and absolute faith in his own dogged ambition. That drive, endured through the deaths of two girls and the success of two Olympians. And with Beijing barely a year away, it's what has put him in a position of having to worry about more than bar routines.

His latest trouble began as most of his troubles do. Even as McCool and Humphrey were Athens-bound in 2004, Fong walked the grass in the vacant lot next door to his gym, imagining a state-of-the-art gathering place for his sport. It has always been his gift and his curse: Where others see danger, he sees opportunity.

Maybe this time everyone was right. In April, with creditors hounding Fong, his gym, his girls, his everything were about to disappear. He continued to plead with the banks. He held off two foreclosure deadlines, getting an extra day, an extra week, whatever. Meanwhile, the gymnasts went about their routines. Neither they nor their parents had an idea of how serious his predicament was.

In Ireland for a competition, Fong sat down to his laptop. "I'm in Belfast right now," he typed. "Still no financing ... really scary." He was as trapped as he'd been when he lost it all the first time. "Worst-case scenario," he went on, "I've lived in my car before. I could do it again."

Weeks more went by. Then, with hope all but lost, Fong at last found the answer in a newly familiar solution: He admitted he couldn't do it on his own. In May, with every bank under the sun having rejected his loan applications, Fong cast a Hail Mary to a friend of a friend involved in Kansas City real estate. He said he was willing to give up a stake in GAGE in return for some help. It was a concession he'd never been able to muster. To his surprise, a deal was struck that paid off creditors and saved the gym.

So Fong can train his future Olympians without distraction now, soaking in their laughter as they twist, leap and roll. And yet ...

"We've jumped one hurdle," he says. "But we've got to continue to jump hurdles. It's always gonna be like this."

Keep pushing. That's a new Al Fong the old Al Fong would recognize.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.