Kara Eaker’s time in Lima for the 2019 Pan American Games has been a bit of a roller coaster.
It started magnificently as she helped the U.S. capture the team gold medal by almost ten-and-a-half points, extending her country’s win streak to five straight.
Her impressive performance across all four events earned a 56.700 total, second only to teammate Riley McCusker. She advanced in first or second place to three women's individual finals: the all-around, balance beam and floor exercise.
But in Monday’s individual all-around final, it was a different story as the 16-year-old World Championships gold medallist slipped off the balance beam on her opening element. She also came to grief on the floor exercise, putting her hand down after a two-and-a-half twist to front layout full.
“I think I just got in my head,” the Kansas City-area native said after. “I put too much pressure on myself.”
Eaker knows a thing or two about pressure. Last season, she made her World Championships debut, helping Team USA to a gold medal and advancing to the balance beam final where she finished sixth. Beam was the only apparatus she performed in Doha.
“She’s improved just in her knowledge about how everything works,” said coach Armine Fong.
That knowledge comes from valuable experience at the Worlds, along with her 2018 Pan Am Championships appearance that netted two gold medals and a bronze. But still there is work to be done.
Fong said Monday she and husband, Al, who also coaches Eaker, have been focused on increasing their pupil’s chances to contribute to a team competition.
“I know from years of coaching that you have more chances, more opportunities, when you’re an all-arounder,” Fong said.
They’ve focused on her strengths – balance beam and floor exercise – while pushing her difficulty level higher on the uneven bars.
“I think she’s somewhere kind of in the mix of learning to put [everything] together,” Fong said. "She's got a goal. She wants to do it."
Eaker knows what to do.
The key, she said, is “not thinking too much about it and doing what I know how to do.”
And when she does that, magic happens.
Magic that has become the trademark two decades of athletes who have trained under Fong, a former gymnast herself in the Soviet Union, at Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.
“I often say, you’re trying to beat her, she’s trying to beat you, and you’re trying to beat all of them,” Fong said the dynamic between Eaker and training mates Leanne Wong and Aleah Finnegan who are also in Lima.
Under Fong, GAGE’s athletes have developed a reputation for being among some of the most artistic, something that didn’t happen by accident
“We find out a kid’s strengths and weaknesses, try to use those, whatever is going to set them apart,” she said. “Because at one point, the rules make you do the same thing so you’re trying to find something that individualizes the sport, keeps it artistic."
Something Eaker has more than enough of.