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Gymnastics coach Al Fong under investigation by U.S. Center for SafeSport

Al Fong, one of the most successful and controversial coaches in American gymnastics for parts of five decades, is being investigated by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for physical, verbal and emotional abuse, according to confidential SafeSport documents obtained by the Southern California News Group.

The investigation of Fong, which has not been previously reported, has been ongoing since at least June 2020 and is in response to approximately 40 allegations of abuse, according to four people familiar with the investigation and U.S. Center for SafeSport documents.

The time of when the alleged abuse took place ranges from the early 2000s to recent years, according to three people familiar with the investigation and documents.

While witnesses in the probe were informed by SafeSport this past October that the center was “approaching the issuance of the Notice of Allegations” in the investigation, current and former gymnasts who have filed complaints against Fong have expressed frustration by the length of the investigation and what they describe as a lack of responsiveness by the Center, according to interviews with participants in the investigation and SafeSport documents.

At least one gymnast said she was told by a U.S. Center for SafeSport employee that the investigation had been placed on hold until after the Olympic Games in Tokyo in the summer of 2021, according to a SafeSport document and two people familiar with the investigation.

Kara Eaker and Leanne Wong, both coached by Fong, were eventually named to the 2021 Olympic team. Fong was a member of the 2004 Olympic and 2013 and 2014 World Championships coaching staffs.

SafeSport investigators have also admonished witnesses and potential witnesses “to be aware that it is a serious violation of the SafeSport Code to retaliate against any person who participates in the Center’s processes, including an individual who reports an allegation, who supports participating parties, or who provides information relevant to an allegation (i.e., a witness).

“Engaging in, or prompting/permitting, behavior that may constitute retaliation by an individual allied with you should be avoided. Should you experience retaliation in connection with the Center’s processes, please report it to the Center as well.”

At least one witness has told SafeSport she has been retaliated against because of her cooperation with the investigation, according to three people familiar with the investigation.

Fong did not respond to telephone messages and emails requesting comment.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport declined to comment.

Fong, 60, has had a high profile both within American gymnastics and on the international level since the 1980s.

He and his wife Armine Barutyan-Fong, a former Soviet national team member, have coached 2004 Olympic silver medalists Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool as well as six World champions at the Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs, Missouri, 20 miles east of Kansas City.

Fong has also coached current U.S. national team member Wong who won a gold medal in the team competition at the World Championships in Liverpool last October and was second in the individual all-around and third in the floor exercise at the 2021 Worlds.

“My wife and I are passionate about training Olympians,” Fong told the Associated Press in 2007. “We call it our life’s work. Everything we do from the business we have to the lifestyle we lead is driven around that.”

But Fong’s coaching methods have long been questioned.

Julissa Gomez, a gymnast coached by Fong, broke her neck and was instantly paralyzed while attempting a difficult vault skill at an international competition in Tokyo in May 1988. Fong had pressured Gomez to attempt the skill, according to multiple published reports.

Gomez died in August 1991 from an infection related to her paralysis.

Christy Henrich, another gymnast coached by Fong at GAGE, was fourth at the 1989 World Championships on the uneven bars. A year earlier she missed making the U.S. Olympic team by a hundredth of a point.

Fong allegedly pressured Henrich to train and compete while injured and encouraged her to lose weight, according to multiple published reports.

“He was absolutely insane,” Jack Rockwell, an athletic trainer, said of Fong’s coaching of Henrich in the 1995 book “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters.”

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Henrich developed anorexia nervosa and died in July 1994 from multiple organ failure related to starvation. She weighed less than 60 pounds at the time of her death.

Her family blamed Fong in the media and barred him from the funeral.

“I would say 99 percent of what has happened to Christy is because of the sport,” Sandy Henrich told reporters.

Fong denied making fat shaming comments to Henrich but after his coaching methods and the events leading to the deaths of Gomez and Henrich were detailed in “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” he largely disappeared from elite gymnastics.

He returned to the global spotlight after nearly a decade in the wilderness, unmistakable with his shaved bald head and wearing his trademark black gloves center stage at the sport’s biggest competitions, with the emergence of Humphrey, a local girl, in 2002. A year later Humphrey was a member of the first U.S. women’s squad to win the team gold medal at the World Championships. She was joined by GAGE teammate McCool in Team USA’s Olympic silver medal-winning line-up at the 2004 Games in Athens.

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