The American rhythmic gymnastics team from suburban Chicago making Tokyo Games history originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
When rhythmic gymnastics begins its competition at the Tokyo Olympics, the history of the United States will be written.
The team, made up of two individual competitors and a group of gymnasts, all hailing from a training center in suburban Chicago, will be the first full rhythmic gymnastics team the United States has ever sent to Olympic Games.
Additionally, several of the athletes even grew up in the Chicago area, including individual competitors Evita Griskenas of Orland Park, Laura Zeng of Libertyville, and Nicole Sladkov of Chicago.
All Team USA athletes train at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in suburban Chicago.
Zeng competed at the 2016 Rio Games but did not qualify for the event’s final, despite having the best American result in rhythmic gymnastics since 1984.
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 Lili 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 performers will compete in the qualifiers on Friday and Saturday morning, followed by the individual finals on Saturday evening and the group finals 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 think 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 airplanes 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.