Rhythmic gymnasts hopeful for arrival of Tokyo games
Rhythmic gymnasts hoping to compete in the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, which have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have continued to practice in Deerfield during recent months.
Athletes from the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center, based out of the Deerfield Park District's Sachs Center, have been competing in the sport from a young age, some since they were 4. Now in their late teens and early 20s, their dreams of competing in the Olympics were delayed by the pandemic.
At first glance, rhythmic gymnastics resembles women's artistic gymnastics floor exercise, but with apparatus such as balls, hoops and ribbons incorporated with leaps and jumps. Competitors in the sport, which involves females in both individual and team competition, are judged based on difficulty and execution of their performances.
Laura Zeng, 21, of Libertyville started in rhythmic gymnastics when she was 7 and has competed in numerous national and international competitions, including the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Since graduating from Libertyville High School in 2018, she has postponed her college plans by taking "gap years" to focus on training, and has been doing double practices for six hours per day. She said athletes travel often because rhythmic gymnastics is a very Eurocentric sport.
"We go to Russia to train a lot and we go to Europe for competitions," Zeng said. "Then, of course, COVID hit, and I had to make the decision to take a third gap year, which is tough, but it's a decision I made to focus on my goals."
With the gym closed for three months due to COVID-19 restrictions, athletes had to train at home. Since the gym has reopened, they are practicing and anxiously awaiting for the chance to compete in the Tokyo games.
"It shows some resilience of athletes everywhere. We're continuing to stay strong," Zeng said. "Once we were back in the gym and were trying new things, we're trying to take advantage of what's been given to us.
"It's really hard after you've prepared your whole life and then have to wait a whole other year. But we're staying strong, and we keep on going forward."
Evita Griskenas, 20, of Orland Park has been competing since the age of 4, and has also qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. She won five medals at the 2019 Pan American games, the most of any athlete in any sport.
She is currently attending Columbia University in New York remotely.
Griskenas decided she wanted to compete in rhythmic gymnastics when she saw it on TV, and asked her mom to enroll her. When she discovered that she had been signed up for "regular gymnastics," she insisted that she wanted to instead be enrolled in "the other kind" that she saw on television.
"I said, 'Hey, I'm going to the Olympics, and I'm going to be an Olympian,'" Griskenas said. "To have that become a reality, and I'm already 20, is a really big deal for me."