When U.S. women’s artistic gymnastics team Rio was selected earlier in July – the announcement was made live in prime time national TV following a televised multi-event competition coverage. Olympic selection for the other gymnastics disciplines went largely unnoticed by the general public. Yet, American rhythmic gymnastics road to Rio is nothing short of historical!
Rhythmic gymnastics Rio Olympics team was announced following the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Providence in June:
Individual rhythmic gymnast: Laura Zeng (alternate Camilla Feeley), both from North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics club in Illinois;
Group rhythmic gymnasts: Kiana Eide, Alisa Kano, Natalie McGiffert, Monica Rokhman and Kristen Shaldybin (alternate Jennifer Rokhman). The group also trains at North Shore Rhythmic, Illinois.
(Trampoline Olympians were announced at the same time, men: Logan Dooley of California (alternate Steven Gluckstein, New Jersey); women: Nicole Ahsinger (alternate Shaylee Dunavin) – both of Louisiana.)
U.S. RHYTHMIC HISTORY IS MADE IN MINSK, BELARUS!
Chances are, if you were not born on the other side of the Atlantic, you may not know a lot about rhythmic gymnastics – (the “other” gymnastics) – a beautiful sport where artistry is valued almost as much as athleticism (more on scoring below). Rhythmic gymnasts compete in individual or group events and perform required body difficulties (leaps, turns, balances) and apparatus elements. The four out of five competition apparatuses (clubs, ribbon, hoop, ball and rope) are selected every couple of years by the International Gymnastics Federation. Currently, only women compete at official competitions (and Olympics), but there is some men’s rhythmic gymnastics following.
As a sport, Rhythmic Gymnastics originated in the former Soviet Union in 1920’s and has been dominated by Russia and other Eastern European countries at the international competitions and the Olympics. In the last couple of years, however, there has been an increased interest in the sport globally with gymnasts from South Africa, China, Egypt, Puerto Rico, and Luxembourg participating in international competitions and challenging for the medals!
In May of 2016, American rhythmic gymnast Laura Zeng from Illinois’ North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center made history by placing third in hoop and ribbon event finals at the Minsk World Cup – which no American has ever accomplished (Margarita Mamun of Russia, two time world silver all-around medalist, swept the gold in all four events and the all-around). Laura was 7th in the all-around. Camilla Feeley, also of North Shore Rhythmic, was eighth in the clubs final.
Laura first surprised gymnastics world in 2014 when (then 14 years old) she won an all-around bronze at the Youth Olympics. In 2015, 15-year old Laura became 8th all-around at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany (best finish ever for the U.S.) and secured a spot for the U.S. for Rio Olympics (only Russia and Belarus qualified two athletes each). At the previous Worlds, in 2014, American gymnast Jasmine Kerber (also from North Shore Rhythmic) placed 19th.
Although Julie Zetlin represented the U.S. in London Olympics on a continental berth, it had been since 2003 that the Americans had earned an outright berth to the Games in individual rhythmic competition (before Laura Zeng’s accomplishment in Stuttgart.)
At Tashkent World Cup earlier in May, Aliya Protto and Nastasya Generalova, both of California Rhythms club near Los Angeles, California, finished forth and fifth respectively in the ribbon final. (Russia’s Yana Kudryavtseva, a three-time all-around world champion placed first). In the all-around, Generalova placed seventh and Protto finished 12th.
MEET LAURA ZENG, U.S. RHYTHMIC OLYMPIAN IN RIO
I spoke with Laura last month at the U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics championships in Providence where she won the all-around and three event finals (ball, hoop, and ribbon) and was named the US Olympian for Rio.
«Rhythmic is not as known as artistic (gymnastics),» Laura said after the competitions, «but it is gradually getting more recognition and support.»
On winning world cup medals: «That was a very nice surprise! I knew I had done my routines well – I practiced them in Russia- I went on the carpet and did what I practiced and then to realize that I won the medal for the United States was just WOW!»
European sport? «I knew that it was more dominant in Europe as Russia is in the top, but we have grown! It is not until I started competing internationally that I noticed the crowds and the level (of popularity) that it was in Europe. America is bringing its own spin into the mix, its own ideas.»
The gold in clubs final and second place all-around title at the U.S. championships 2016 went to Camilla Feeley (Laura’s teammate at the North Shore Rhythmic) who was named a U.S. alternate for Rio team; Serena Lu from club Isadora in Staten Island, NY, was third in the all-around.
US RHYTHMIC GROUP IS GOING TO RIO!
US rhythmic group also made history at the 2015 Worlds by qualifying to the Olympics on merit. The only time the U.S. group participated in the Olympics was in 1996 in Atlanta where they qualified based on the host nation status (this was also the first Olympics where rhythmic groups competed). At the 2015 worlds the U.S. qualified a group to Rio based on their best showing among the groups from the Americas (they finished 13th overall).
The Rio group members (who also train at North Shore Rhythmic in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, with Laura and Camille) are: Kiana Eide, Alisa Kano, Natalie McGiffert, Monica Rokhman and Kristen Shaldybin (Replacement athlete: Jennifer Rokhman.
COACH OF THE YEAR: NATALIA KLIMOUK
Natalia Klimouk, head coach of the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center near Chicago where Laura, Camille and U.S. rhythmic group all train (as well as two other national team members- Evita Griskenas and Natalie Bourand), has been named a “Coach of the Year” by the USA Gymnastics for several years now.
In a phone interview, Natalia, formerly a coach of the Belarus national team, attributed the recent advancement of the rhythmic gymnastics in the U.S. to the national program leadership:
“Our federation (USA Gymnastics) – rhythmic program director Caroline Hunt and (Head of USA Gymnastics) Steve Penny – gives us an opportunity to send the athletes to every World Cup event and to train in Russia with their head coach Irina Viner several times a year. There we train with the best international gymnasts and learn from each other. It took six-seven years of hard work and dedication from the federation and all the clubs’ coaches to organize the process and bring us to where we are now. Caroline Hunt is a true fanatic of the sport who gives it all her love and energy… ”
Natalia told me that they have an excellent coaching team at North Shore Rhythmic, and that the most important component of their success, is…love!
“When you start working with these girls, little gymnasts, all you are trying to do is help them develop and show their best and help them believe that they can do anything! …. There are so many opportunities for kids in the U.S. to participate in so many different sports, yet we have very few kids leave our program. They come and stay. They love it here.”
U.S. rhythmic program has also benefited from having an Olympic training site which has been designated in 2011 (at the famous Martha and Bella Karolyi Ranch in Houston.) The Ranch’s monthly training camps have been one of the reasons behind the success of the USA artistic gymnastics team and now rhythmic gymnasts national team members and coaches also have a chance to regularly train together at their own facility. (USA Gymnastics has recently entered into the agreement with Karolyi family to buy the Ranch’s gymnastics facilities).
At the World Cup event that just finished in Baku, Azerbaijan over last weekend of July 22-24, Laura Zeng placed fifth in the hoop (with a score of 18.250) and clubs finals (18.300, personal best in international competition) , proving that she really belongs with the world’s best (world champion Yana Kudryavtseva of Russia placed first in hoop, 19,450, and won the clubs with 19,400). In the all-around Laura placed 11th and Camille Freeley – 13th. U.S. group placed eighth in the all-around group competition.
RIO PODIUM PREDICTIONS
In the individual competition, Russia’s Yana Kudryavtseva and Margarita Mamun have been going 1-2 at the international competitions over the last three years with Yana Kudryavtseva holding the last three all-around world titles.
There are also Melitina Stanuita, Belarus (three-time world all-around bronze medalist), and Anna Rizatdinova, Ukraine (3rd at the recent European Championships 2016). Neta Rivkin of Israel and Pazhava Salome of Georgia are also capable of making the podium.
Group event is expected to be contested among Russian, Belarus, Israeli, Italian and Bulgarian teams. Recent European Championships’ all-around group title went to Russia, followed by Belarus and Israel (Israel won two hoop-three clubs event and Belarus won five ribbon event final). The World 2015 all-around title also went to Russia, with silver going to Bulgaria and Spain getting the bronze. Russia won the group gold in the four consecutive Olympics — in Sydney 2000, in Athens 2004, in Beijing 2008 and in London 2012.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW FOR RIO
You absolutely do NOT need to be an expert to enjoy a rhythmic gymnastics performance and appreciate the height of the jumps, flexibility of the balances, and mastery of the risky apparatus throws – all performed while a gymnast is trying to create an artistic image and express the character of the music!
but these facts will make it a little easier for you to follow the competition in Rio:
– 26 gymnasts will compete in the individual all-around competition, with 10 best advancing to the final (each gymnast in qualification and final rounds performs four routines: with clubs, ribbon, hoop and ball). There will be no event medals – only the all-around competition.
– In group competition, 14 groups compete in the all-around with 8 groups advancing to the finals (each five-person group competes two routines: one with five ribbons and another with three pairs of clubs and two hoops). The apparatus selection for each Olympic cycle is done by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG). A group exercise includes all required body difficulties and apparatus elements that apply to individual competition (performed in synchrony), but in addition, the group performs apparatus exchanges and cooperation elements between the gymnasts.
– Scoring: There are two judging panels, difficulty (D) and execution (E) in rhythmic gymnastics and a total maximum score is 20 marks (comprised of 10 maximum D and E scores each). While the D score adds the required elements (balances, leaps, turns, dance sequences, technical elements specific for each apparatus, as well as dynamic throws), the E score deducts for artistic (composition unity, music/movement unity, presentation, use of space etc) and technical faults (incorrect shape of the element). The scores of the leading gymnasts at major international events typically go over 19 marks.
Rio rhythmic finals will take place on August 20 (individual) and August 21 (groups).