Armine Burutyan Fong overcomes Soviet opression to become top coach
July 24, 2004

Out of the cold

Armine Burutyan Fong overcomes Soviet opression to become top coach

By Bill Althaus
The Examiner

Jeff Stead/the Examiner
Armine Burutyan Fong works with young gymnasts at Great American
Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs. Burutyan Fong was a top gymnast in
Armenia as a child but now shows what she has learned to area gymnasts.
The tiny girl stands in two feet of snow, blowing into her hands in an
unsuccessful attempt to keep them warm. She has a school backpack slung over
her right shoulder and a gym bag hanging over the left.
It is hours before the sun will rise in the small community in Armenia, yet
she peers down the roadside at 5:30 a.m., hoping to catch a glimpse of the
bus that will take her to her gym.
This is a daily ritual for 9-year-old Armine Barutyan, who will one day
become one of the most celebrated gymnasts in her country.
She didn’t view the daily trip by bus as a hardship. Her father worked three
jobs, yet there wasn’t enough money in the budget to buy gasoline to drive
his daughter to her early-morning workouts.

Jeff Stead/the Examiner
Burutyan Fong works with Courtney McCool as she warms up for practice.
McCool and Terin Humphrey both train at GAGE and have both qualified for the
U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team that will compete in the Olympics next month in
Athens, Greece.
For six years, in sub-zero temperatures, driving rain or mind-numbing heat,
Barutyan would never miss the opportunity to fine tune her skills – skills
that were light years ahead of their time.
It was the early 1980s, and this petite dynamo was executing a triple back
off the bars or a double layout off the beam.
Judges were so stunned by the moves, they didn’t know how to judge the
Armenian gymnast who seemed destined for Olympic gold.
But her dreams were dashed because of the type of political skullduggery
that most of us only experience in a big-budget summertime movie.
While Barutyan was about to burst on the international scene, the former
Soviet Union was hand picking representatives for its gymnastics team.
The Soviets wanted a pure team, and that did not include anyone from
“They asked me to move to the Soviet Union,” she said, “but I did not want
to leave my family.”
Officials even asked her to change her last name from Barutyan to Barutyana,
thinking that the extra vowel at the end of her name would make the world
think she was the pride of the USSR.

Jeff Stead/the Examiner
Armine Burutyan Fong talks with young gymnasts at GAGE in Blue Springs.
She refused – and soon disappeared from the international gymnastics scene.
Eventually, she and her family moved to the United States where she became a
gymnastics coach in Los Angeles.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Al Fong, the owner and coach at Great American
Gymnastic Express in Blue Springs. “Armine could have been one of the most
respected and honored gymnasts in the world – but she was never given the
chance to perform, to show what she could do.”
Fong speaks with great passion.
He loves his sport, and will take two gymnasts to the Summer Games in
Athens – Courtney McCool and Terin Humphrey.
He will also be joined by Armine Barutyan Fong, his wife of nine years, who
along with her husband earned Coach of the Year honors by USGA (United
States of America Gymnastics).
Barutyan Fong’s story is one of great disappointment, tempered by courage
and a fiery determination that could not be extinguished by the Soviet
“Al talks about revenge, and how sweet it must be to be going to the
Olympics,” Armine said, sitting in a small office at the Great American
Gymnastic Express.
“But I don’t see it as revenge. I see it as a great opportunity to show the
world what we have accomplished here at GAGE.”
The Fongs have no children of their own, but Armine is quick to point out
that, “Every girl at GAGE is like our child. We love them all.”

Jeff Stead/the Examiner
Armine lines up a group of young gymnasts during practice at GAGE.
But oftentimes, that affection is tough love.
“I came to the gym a week after Al and Armine were married,” said Humphrey
of Bates City, Mo.
“I kind of feel like her kid. I know she loves me, but I know how strict she
can be. What Armine says, goes. And that’s all right with me because she’s
always right. She knows what she’s talking about.”
Lee’s Summit resident McCool, who has been at GAGE the past six years,
“We know that Armine could have been in the Olympics, she was good enough,
but she never made it because of politics,” McCool said. “I think you pay
closer attention to someone who has experienced what you’re going through.
“There are days you don’t feel like spending eight hours in the gym, but you
look over at Armine and see how much it all means to her, and you get back
to work. She’s a real inspiration to all of us.”
Humphrey’s family moved from Albany, Mo., to Bates City to be close to the
Fongs’ Blue Springs club.
McCool’s family could select any club in the metro area to train and they
selected GAGE.
“We wanted to work with Al and Armine,” Terin said. “I mean, I was too young
to really know what was happening when I first came, but I’m sure glad my
folks made the decision to have me work and train here.”
While McCool and Humphrey have put in countless thousands of hours to
realize their dreams of going to the Olympics, Armine and Al Fong have
dedicated their lives to the young ladies who train there.
“We spend a lot of time here,” Armine said, chuckling. “But we’re not
complaining. This is all so important to us. We want to build something
special, and I think we are.”
When asked about the hardships she had to endure, before leaving Armenia
with her family, Armine sighs and looks wistfully into the gym.
“Even though my father worked very, very hard at three jobs, we never had
much money,” she said. “Winters in Armenia are very cold, but I walked to
that bus stop every morning at 5:30 a.m.
“We’d get to the gym, and it wasn’t heated. We would keep our coats and
gloves on until it time to perform. We would do our routines, then put our
coats back on so we could get warm.
“Looking back on it, it was very difficult. But I was just a child. I
thought it was something that everyone went through and experienced.”
That’s why a recent conversation with GAGE parent didn’t sit very well with
Barutyan Fong.
“A mother said she didn’t want to drive 45 minutes to our gym,” Armine said.
“I thought, ‘I woke up at 5 a.m. I walked to the bus stop, made two changes
along the way and worked out at a gym with no heat.’
“Uh, I didn’t have much sympathy for that mother. She was talking to the
wrong person.”
Although she missed out on the glory and prestige that comes from being an
Olympic athlete, Armine can revel in the fact that she has been honored as
the top coach in the country.
She has no peers when it comes to choreography and she is about to live her
“We’re going to the Olympics,” she said, “we’re going to the Olympics.”