A Grain Valley teen is one of five athletes picked to compete at the world gymnastics championships in Stuttgart, Germany for the United States women’s team.
Kara Eaker, 16, is competing for the U.S. on the senior level for her second straight year. She made the balance beam final at last year’s world championships in Doha, Qatar.
Eaker looks back at the experience as a useful tool for this year’s competition, especially “being able to get used to going for that long (trip) away from home (and) also training with the gymnasts there in Doha.”
Eaker is one of three gymnasts from Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) in Blue Springs who hope to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The other two GAGE gymnasts currently working to be on Team USA in Tokyo are Leanne Wong,16, and Aleah Finnegan, 16.
“We definitely use each other as a boost,” said Eaker before leaving for the national team camp in Sarasota, Florida. “We try to support each other, and the others (Wong and Finnegan) do the same.”
The three GAGE gymnasts attended the national team camp where Eaker was named to travel with the team and Wong as a non-traveling alternate. Though Wong isn’t in Germany, her coach Al Fong said she needs to stay ready for the team.
“It’s just like in Chiefs football. You have to have people on the bench in case someone gets injured and they’ve got to come in,” said Fong. “When you get that Super Bowl ring, everyone gets it.”
A history of elite athletes
GAGE has a history of producing top gymnasts, but there hasn’t been a trio like this at the gym since the early 2000s when Terin Humphrey, Courtney McCool and Sarah Shire competed across the globe. Humphrey, the most decorated, earned two silver medals at the 2004 Olympics.
Al Fong said the current threesome was identified around three years ago for their potential.
“They’ve already been in our program for three or four years. They have gotten to a point to where they could start training specifically for the Olympics,” he said. “It’s a good four-year process.”
Training intensified over the summer with domestic competition, the Pan Am Games in Peru and the U.S. championships at Sprint Center. All condensed into a hectic schedule.
At the national championships, Eaker and her GAGE teammates began on the balance beam, the apparatus that GAGE is reputedly the strongest. Eaker was a favorite for the event, and at the Pan Am Games, she won silver. But in the first round of the nationals, she fell off the beam at the tail end of a tumbling series on a backflip sequence.
Fong said there was a good reason for the fall.
“That is one of the hardest beam routines in the world,” he said. “She’s been more consistent hitting it, but when you have a beam routine that hard you’re going to have these hiccups.”
Eaker regrouped and earned a silver on the balance beam at the nationals for the second straight year.
On the medals podium for the beam, Eaker and GAGE teammate Wong, the bronze medalist, flanked Simone Biles, the reigning world champion.
“You look at Simone (Biles) and she’s an amazing athlete,” said Fong. “So when you see that and you see our kids side-by-side, regardless of what their score is, it’s a great picture.”
Wong placed fifth in all-around, the highest all-around finish among the three GAGE gymnasts.
After the national championships, the gymnasts needed a break. So with some time off, they went to the Kansas City Chiefs training camp in St. Joseph. Leanne Wong was thrilled to watch quarterback Patrick Mahomes practice...
“It was just really cool to see him in person when you normally watch him on TV,” said Wong.
After the world championships, there won’t be much downtime. The trio will regroup and train for more competition leading into the Olympic trials next June in St. Louis.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.