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Gymnast Leanne Wong’s quest for 2024 Summer Olympics reaches Tampa this weekend

“She could potentially achieve so much in the next three years,” Florida Gators coach Jenny Rowland says.
Leanne Wong, entering her sophomore season with the Florida Gators, was an alternate for the Tokyo Olympics and won the U.S. Classic last month.
Leanne Wong, entering her sophomore season with the Florida Gators, was an alternate for the Tokyo Olympics and won the U.S. Classic last month. [ TONY GUTIERREZ | AP ]
Published Aug. 19

TAMPA — Al Fong knows Leanne Wong’s ultimate goal for the next three years.

But Fong, the gymnast’s personal coach since she was around 5 years old at Great American Gymnastics Express in Missouri, also knows not to mention it. He and Wong might not talk about the goal — competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics and winning medals — until later this year. Maybe not until 2023, even.

“That’s an absolute strategy, for sure,” Fong said.

Wong knows she can’t jump too far ahead. That has been an evolution in her gymnastics career the last few years. Fong and the other Great American coaches let her lead. She’ll dictate what’s in her routines. If Wong needs help choreographing or inserting details, they’ll assist when asked.

Wong, who turns 19 next month, is the one “driving the ship,” Fong said, and her next port of call is this weekend: the U.S. championships at Amalie Arena. She is one of four present and future Florida Gators competing, capping a 12-month period for her that has included stops in Tokyo (U.S. Olympic team alternate); Kitakyushu, Japan (all-around silver at the world championships); Florida (All-America honors); and most recently, Salt Lake Valley, Utah (U.S. Classic all-around winner).

This weekend’s competition will serve as a vehicle for her — a space to test new moves and combinations — en route to the world championships that begin Oct. 29, Fong said.

“You can’t look three years in the future,” Fong said. “You got to take smaller, bite-sized steps. A month at a time. Two months at a time. Three months at a time. And then make a plan, and then go for it.”

Leanne Wong doesn't take it easy in terms of competition. “I just have a lot of respect and admiration for her ... showing and proving that it is possible for female gymnasts to compete both (in the) NCAA and in the elite world," UF coach Jenny Rowland says.
Leanne Wong doesn't take it easy in terms of competition. “I just have a lot of respect and admiration for her ... showing and proving that it is possible for female gymnasts to compete both (in the) NCAA and in the elite world," UF coach Jenny Rowland says. [ COLIN E. BRALEY | AP ]

Florida coach Jenny Rowland said that watching Wong is captivating. She doesn’t have a weak event, Rowland said, and experiencing once of her performances makes you “forget about what’s going on just for a moment.” As a freshman last season, Wong managed a gymnastics schedule that contained NCAA and elite training.

“I just have a lot of respect and admiration for her being able to do both and wanting to do both,” Rowland said, “and showing and proving that it is possible for female gymnasts to compete both (in the) NCAA and in the elite world.”

Wong’s Olympic experience wasn’t smooth. Within a week of arriving in Tokyo, she was quarantined for the rest of the event because of contract tracing after a teammate tested positive for the coronavirus. She took a month off after returning, Fong said, then asked for help preparing for the world championships in October.

Wong, who was not made available for interviews this week, spent her first semester of college taking online classes and training at Great American Gymnastics Express. The schedule was “pure insanity,” Fong said. She navigated a 15-credit course schedule around training sessions, but the world championships ended with her all-around silver medal.

Each of Wong’s stops in the past year meant navigating the changes between NCAA training and elite training — a “completely different sport,” Fong said. College competitions nearly every weekend in season are grueling, Fong said, but Wong’s training time was also limited by NCAA regulations. Wong stayed after UF sessions to work on strength and endurance, and Fong’s wife helped Wong ramp up for the U.S. Classic in July when she returned home after the collegiate season.

A schedule like that needs to be approached day-to-day, Rowland said. That’s similar to the “step-by-step processes” Fong said he and Wong implemented, and it’s something they’ll need for the rest of the time leading up to the 2024 Summer Olympics.

But none of Wong’s coaches can complain because she’s “driving herself,” Fong said. They’re just outside the vehicle, waiting to help if needed.

“She could potentially achieve so much in the next three years,” Rowland said.

Contact Andrew Crane at acrane@tampabay.com. Follow @CraneAndrew.

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