A chance decision at the ripe old age of 8 boded well for Lili Mizuno.
Mizuno, a 2019 Glenbrook North graduate, had participated in artistic gymnastics as a child, but it wasn’t for her. She’s seen girls in her gym playing with ribbons, and she told her mom she’d like to try that.
Now the Northbrook resident is a member of the USA rhythmic gymnastics team, which will compete in the Tokyo Olympics starting August 6.
“It’s really a thrill,” Mizuno said by phone from the US Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. “I’m so grateful to have reached this point and I can show my skills with my teammates. My brain is still trying to process what’s going on. I never thought I would go to the Olympics. It’s surreal .
There are two types of gymnastics in the Olympics. Artistic gymnastics includes events such as vaulting, uneven bars and floor exercises. Rhythmic gymnastics is different. In group competition, five team members compete on the mat at the same time using equipment like hoops, balls, ribbons, clubs, and ropes.
In Tokyo, Mizuno and four of her teammates will do two routines involving five balls and two clubs, each for 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
Competing in Japan will to some extent be old hat for Mizuno, who was born in Kawasaki and moved to the Chicago area from California in 2016 to train in rhythmic gymnastics at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in Deerfield. The group’s entire US rhythmic gymnastics team trains at this facility. That includes Vernon Hills graduate Nicole Sladkov, Buffalo Grove graduate Yelyzaveta Merenzon and Barrington student Gergana Petkova, an alternate.
There is also an individual competition in which Libertyville graduate Laura Zeng and Sandburg graduate Evita Griskenas will participate. Both also train at North Shore. Zeng finished 11th in the all-around at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and won the all-around at the US Championships in late June. Griskenas is the American ball champion.
Performance and competition are 90% mental, Mizuno said, which is why she isn’t too worried about speaking in Tokyo, even if there won’t be spectators.
“Physically we are able to do our routine cleanly and hit our goal of consistency,” she said. “I know how to manage my own nerves and I know what mindset I need to be when I enter the competition area.”
Mizuno and her teammates were tested for COVID-19 before arriving in Japan and are getting tested every day they are there.
Petkova, who will be a senior at Barrington, is an alternate for the Games and has taken a different path to the Olympics. At 4 years old, she turned to rhythmic gymnastics – with perhaps a little nudge from her mother, Veronika Iordanova – because her sister, Viara, was into this discipline.
If one of Team USA’s five starters can’t go for some reason, they’ll be ready.
Originally, Petkova was supposed to prepare with another group for the 2024 Olympics cycle, but a seventh member was needed for the Tokyo Olympics, she said. She was dropped after the US Championships and suddenly made the team.
“I was very shocked,” she said. “It was not understandable for me. I was shocked, with a lot of emotion. I didn’t know what was going on.
She agrees with Mizuno on the importance of the mental aspect of sport, especially on the world stage.
“Having a strong mindset is very difficult, but it’s important for rhythmic gymnastics,” Petkova said. “Having that strong mentality to show what you can do is crucial. In my opinion, I think that’s one of the most important factors of being a rhythmic gymnast.
In 2019, Petkova didn’t make the national team and wanted to quit the sport, but her coaches encouraged her to stick with it. She offers some tips for budding gymnasts.
“Keep pushing and be determined because there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
Mizuno added, “I would tell them to focus on mental training as much as physical training. But don’t forget to have fun. When you’re a professional athlete, there are days when you want to quit. The love of sport keeps you going.
Gregg Voss is a freelance journalist for Pioneer Press.