Rhythmic gymnasts from Chicago’s North Shore will have one last chance to medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
While the United States were excluded from the individual final, their group which includes Lili Mizuno, Camille Feeley, Nicole Sladkov, Isabelle Connor, Yelyzaveta Merenzon and Elizaveta Pletneva will take part in qualifying on Saturday.
Orland Parks’ Evita Griskenas and Libertyville’s Laura Zeng failed to make progress in their quest for an Olympic medal in the individual event on Friday morning.
Team USA, which has already made history as part of the first-ever full rhythmic gymnastics team the United States has ever sent to an Olympics, hails from suburban North Shore Rhythmic Training Center Gymnastics Center.
“We are like sisters,” Sladkov said. “I mean we are a family. We have been together for some time.
Sladkov said that inseparable bond not only helps them get off the mat, but also keeps them going.
“There are five of us on the mat and we turn to each other, communicating with each other, in sync with each other,” she said. “I would say the hardest part of the band is capturing that moment when we’re all together, in sync, not just moving, but like we have the same breath together, we have the same energy.”
“I don’t think there’s another team in, like, in sport that has the kind of bond that we have,” she said.
Often the forgotten genre of Olympic gymnastics, the sport is like combining its more famous cousin, artistic gymnastics practiced by superstars like Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee, with ballet and a circus. Gymnasts dance by throwing and catching objects – hoops, balls, ribbons, a pair of clubs – bending and twisting on a mat so quickly it’s often impossible for the untrained eye to comprehend its complexity .
Griskenas described rhythmic gymnastics as a combination of “grace and elegance” mixed with “a lot of strength”.
“There’s a lot of cross-training that incorporates ballet technique and dance, as well as, again, a lot of strength and conditioning training,” she said.
Twirling the satin ribbon – nearly 20 feet long – requires keeping their wrists in constant motion, for example. They roll the balls and hoops around their body. They toss the clubs into the air and then acrobatize across the 40-foot competition floor to catch them just as they fall. Point deductions are taken for a misplaced throw, wayward tape, missed catch.
In the sport dominated since its inception by Russia, American rhythmic gymnasts hope their increased presence in Tokyo could mark a turning point for the sport at home, where they are often shunned as ribbon twirlers and hula hoopers.
“It’s exciting, but also in a way, full of responsibility because now I’m not only responsible to myself and my family and, you know, my coaches and everything, but also to my country and for representing rhythmic gymnastics like in the U.S. is very important to me and I want to do my best when I perform,” she said.
It’s supposed to look effortless, but to make it that way, they’ve been training all day every day for months.
Many American rhythmic gymnasts don’t sugarcoat their chances of winning.
“Definitely probably not,” laughed Mizuno, a member of the five-woman squad. The team barely qualified for the Olympics, squeaking in the lineup by a tiny margin. “It’s almost a miracle that we are able to be here right now.”
Individual and group artists will participate in the qualifiers on Friday and Saturday morning, followed by the individual final on Saturday evening and the group final on Sunday in Tokyo. The Russians remain seemingly unbeatable, and until the United States invests more in their sport, they are unlikely to reach a podium, many American athletes have acknowledged.
But they’re determined to make the most of it to spark interest in rhythmic gymnastics, which is evolving in ways they believe could appeal to an American audience.
It has always been performed to classical music; its origin involved a live pianist accompanying the gymnast from the sidelines. But the rules have relaxed to allow songs with words, and some gymnasts are incorporating genres like hip hop, techno and mainstream pop songs.
One of the group’s performances this year will be a techno remix of Bon Jovi’s “It’s my Life” – an unabashedly American song, Mizuno said.
They dream of a day when rhythmic gymnastics will be well enough known in the United States, people on planes will stop mistaking their rubber bats for bowling pins.
“The United States has finally started supporting us,” laughed Griskenas. “Or maybe I should use a rhythmic gymnastics pun: we’re going into batons. We’re getting there.”
Qualifying rounds for the event begin at 8:20 p.m. CT.
HOW TO WATCH: Stream it live here.