Kansas City Star (subscription), MO
Aug 8 2004
McCool, Humphrey grew up golden
Two kids with `one-in-a-million’ talent. Two coaches who know how to
make champions. Eleven years spent working toward a dream.
By MIKE DeARMOND
The Kansas City Star
The signs are everywhere. Over the entry door of the Great American
Gymnastic Express in Blue Springs. On the glass of the door panels.
On every inside wall.
In full view of the high bar from which Terin Humphrey is still
launching a spinning dismount as Courtney McCool grasps the low bar
to launch her own routine.
`You worked so-o-o hard,’ is the message of one of those signs. `You
A different sign maker has added an extraneous `o.’
`I am so-o-o-o proud of you guys!’
Six American women – four of whom are actually teenagers – are headed
to Athens, Greece, hoping to win an Olympic team gold medal in
gymnastics. And then it hits you. Two of them – Terin Humphrey and
Courtney McCool – have trained daily from four to eight hours a day,
in this gym, amid all these little girls who see the dream up close
Al Fong, the gym’s founder and coach of Humphrey and McCool – along
with his wife, former Armenian gymnast Armine Barutyan Fong – calls
the afternoon workout to an end in playful fashion.
`Toga, toga, toga,’ Fong chants.
What he means by that, you can see on the front of the special
Olympic Games section you now hold in your hands.
`Greek Goddesses,’ McCool and Humphrey were called when they were
confirmed as Olympians. And in moments, they are transformed by a
last-minute bit of dress-up whimsy.
They stand, Humphrey giggling as the photographer adjusts their
poses, McCool rolling her eyes at the indignity of standing there,
before golden Greek columns, the golden drape, in these
one-size-fits-all Greek tunics, the train of the garments puddling at
the feet of these small but so powerful athletes.
`I thought it was cool that we got to dress up like Greeks,’ Humphrey
later said. `I wanted to wear the hat-thing, though.’
Uh, that would be a ring of laurels, Terin.
McCool rolled her eyes again and offered no comment.
Off to the side, their coaches stood, remembering. Dredging
recollections of 11 years ago, when Terin Humphrey first stepped into
the Great American Gymnastic Express, the day six years ago when
Courtney McCool joined her.
Armine Barutyan had been in Kansas City exactly one week, having
finally fled the Soviet gymnastics system that denied her an Olympic
team spot because she would not renounce her Armenian heritage.
She was working with a few girls who showed promise of becoming elite
gymnasts. Al Fong approached her and said he had a girl he wanted her
to check out.
`I said OK,’ Armine said. `We started working. I said, `Well, you’re
not the most flexible person.’ But I liked her work ethic, right
away. I thought, maybe, there’s a chance.’
One day, 11 years ago. But the memory of what happened the next week
still shines in the eyes of Armine Barutyan Fong.
Humphrey came back and obviously had been working hard at everything
Armine had told her.
`I give the kid something,’ Armine said. `She goes home and comes
back with it. It is unusual.
`I remember my own coach telling me, `I had you. I didn’t have
anybody before you. I didn’t have anybody after you. I don’t think
I’m ever going to see another.’
`They just come one in a million sometimes.’
Terin Humphrey was the one in a million for Armine Barutyan Fong.
`The work ethic drives the talent,’ Armine said. `She was like me.
There was a connection.’
It is still there. All these years later. Gymnast and coach
understand each other.
`Sometimes you have to push your thumb,’ Armine said. `Sometimes you
have to be the loving and caring person. I call her my baby sometimes
because we started from zero.’
Sometimes, Armine wants no one else near Terin Humphrey. Even Al.
`Don’t even touch her,’ Armine contends she has told her husband.
`It’s my job.’
Terin Humphrey sees herself transforming, day by day, from a
sometimes shy, sometimes `I need a hug’ little girl, into a
confidently open embrace of the biggest gymnastics meet of her life.
`Right now it’s a lot more fun that it used to be,’ Humphrey said.
`Before, `Oh great, I’ve got to go to the gym.’ It was just for
yourself. Now it’s for the whole United States. The whole United
States is counting on us. I feel it. But I’m ready.’
Humphrey has a real sense of being a member of this team. She is no
longer standing alone, fighting – even McCool – for a spot at the
She is going, and Holly Vise and Chellsie Memmel, two pure-bred
Olympic hopefuls who were not selected for the team, aren’t.
`They were both world champions last year,’ Humphrey said, not
mentioning that she too was a member of the 2003 U.S. world
championship team. `It’s a shock they didn’t make it.
`But we have so many talented girls on this team now. It’s
Al Fong still kids Armine about the day Courtney McCool’s parents
brought her into the gym in Blue Springs.
`She wouldn’t take the time to even look at her,’ Al said, the
recollection as fresh as the moment it took place six years ago.
`I’m working with my girls on beam now,’ Armine told him. `I don’t
have time now.’
Al tried to persist. Armine gave him one of those don’t-bother-me
`Everybody knows,’ Armine explained, `if I’m on beam, don’t
interrupt. Unless it’s my mom on the phone, calling in an emergency.’
Al Fong couldn’t blame Armine. McCool didn’t look like the gymnast
that friends had said was better than one of his most seasoned elites
– not Humphrey, Fong said, although he wouldn’t put a name to the
`Her mom and dad came in with this little kid,’ Al Fong remembered.
`Her hair was really long. She had oversized sweats on. Oversized
`She walked into this place looking like a walking, talking bowling
`I’m looking at her and going, `This is a joke, right? This has to be
a joke.’ They’re comparing her with one of my better ones?’
But a promise of an evaluation was a promise.
`Honey,’ he said to McCool, `can you go over here and do some warming
Immediately, Al said, he saw a difference. This little girl’s posture
was perfect. Her flexibility was perfect.
`When she pointed her toe,’ he said, `it was perfect.
Still, she was a bit stocky.
`She had no neck,’ Al said, a point of genetics that has become
something of a running joke around the national gymnastics scene.
`Her neck is getting longer,’ national team camp director Bela
Karolyi said recently.
Then Al Fong had McCool do some jumps, simple ones, as a
compulsory-level gymnast might before. Some leaps.
`Oh my goodness!’ Fong said. `All of a sudden, this little, stocky
thing turned into this beauty.’
Fong nearly ran over to Armine. Was rebuffed. Ran back to McCool and
sat her down for a talk. And Al Fong liked what he heard.
`She still didn’t look like she was a gymnast that you would say,
`OK, she’s going to go to the Olympics someday,’ ’ Al said.
`I could tell that she had serious goals. She had never lost a meet.
Ever. She was used to being No. 1. That thing in her eyes, you could
see that she intended to be the best in the world.’
A year ago at this time, Courtney McCool was competing at the junior
national level. She wasn’t on the national radar screen.
That changed at the 2004 Visa American Cup, where she earned a trip
to the Athens Test Event. Winning the gold medal there changed
`She is not the same person,’ Bela Karolyi said. `Just a little
thing. People look at her and say that is not a world-class gymnast.
And then she starts to move. That passion. She is completely
together. She is so strong. It is amazing.’
McCool breaks into a smile almost as wide as she is tall at the
repetition of such comments. But she hasn’t changed, she contends.
`I’ve always thought of myself as equal to everyone else,’ McCool
She proved it by rallying from a fall and finishing fourth at the
2004 U.S. Nationals. She proved it again at the U.S. Olympic trials,
where she finished second and was chosen to the Olympic team along
with Courtney Kupets.
`My dad always tells me to go out there and kick butt,’ McCool said.
`That would be his words, `kick butt.’
`My mom tells me, `Do your best. You can do it. I know you
Linda McCool – seemingly as taut and trim as her daughter from strict
diet, running, lifting weights and the like – and Courtney share a
special determination upon which Courtney says she feeds.
`If my mom’s not there,’ Courtney said recently, `I’m not all there.’
Terin Humphrey thought, after a fall forward to her knee on her final
vault of the Olympic Trials in Anaheim, that she might have blown her
chance at the Olympic team.
`I didn’t want to admit it then,’ she said that night. `But it was
The mistake dropped Humphrey from fourth in the trials standings to
seventh. She had to sweat out a final evaluation camp at the Karolyi
Ranch in mid-July. And not until she heard Martha Karolyi announce
her name, right after that of Courtney Kupets, Courtney McCool and
Carly Patterson, could Humphrey do more than hold herself on the
aluminum bleachers deep in the nothing heart of Texas an hour or so
north of Houston.
`I think I started crying,’ Humphrey said.
Finally, she was an Olympian, a dream held for longer than Terin
Humphrey can remember.
Certainly, it came after the earliest days, when she used to climb
the drawers of her dresser to switch on the lights in her bedroom.
`I think I was about 2 or 3 when I did that,’ she said.
Lisa Humphrey, Terin’s mom, remembers knowing something was up when
all got quiet in the back seat of the family car.
`If it got quiet back there,’ Lisa said, `you knew you had to pull
over to put her back in her car seat.’
That same little girl now drives her own car, a street-ready if not
collector’s vintage electric blue 1966 Mustang. And she apparently
drives it a bit fast at times.
Last week, her father, Steve, mentioned a special reason that his
daughter was excited about receiving a ceremonial key to Bates City,
the tiny town (population 245, according to the entrance sign) to
which the Humphreys moved from Albany, Mo., so Terin could realize
her Olympic dream.
`She’s hoping,’ her dad said, `it will mean she can get out of any
Courtney McCool will have a strong personal cheering section when the
women’s team gymnastics competition begins on Aug. 15 in Athens.
Mother Linda, father Mike will definitely be there. Maybe, at the
last minute, brother Michael will be able to go.
Terin Humphrey’s mom and dad will be there. So will her brother,
Armine Barutyan Fong and Al Fong will be there for every minute of
training. During competition, hopefully alternating days with Evgeny
Murchenko, personal coach of Patterson, Armine anticipates being one
of two official coaches allowed on the competition floor. And Al will
be nearby, perhaps in the stands, with his cell phone.
Front and center, leaping and tumbling, twirling and vaulting, trying
to balance the Olympic dreams that are now a reality, will be those
two little girls who so long ago walked into the gym at the Great
American Gymnastic Express.
– Event: Gymnastics
– KC-area connection: McCool lives in Lee’s Summit and Humphrey lives
in Bates City, Mo. Both train in Blue Springs at the Great American
– When are they competing? Beginning Aug. 15, with team finals Aug.
17 and individual all-around finals Aug. 19
– What’s their story? McCool finished second to national co-champion
Courtney Kupets at the U.S. Olympic trials in late June. Humphrey
made up for her disappointing trials by securing her Olympic berth at
a last-chance evaluation camp near Houston in July. Making up
one-third of the six-woman team, the two were tapped as