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The subdued mood of the place changes only slightly when a second coach enters. “The weather in Greece is beautiful,” she announces. “Natalia says hi to you. And there is no air conditioning in the gym there.” This elicits a collective groan. The girls have questions, too, about the wildfires that lately have been raging across Greece, but the coach pointedly ignores them. Though these young women are the top American athletes in their sport, about to head to the world championships in Patras, Greece, where they have a chance to earn a place in the 2008 Olympics, there is no room here for anything even remotely resembling diva-dom.
That’s because their sport is rhythmic gymnastics. Not, as they often find themselves explaining, “gymnastic gymnastics,” the sport with the balance beam and the parallel bars and all that. That sport, technically, is called “artistic gymnastics.” Rhythmic gymnastics, by contrast, consists of floor exercises, done with a variety of objects such as ropes, balls, clubs, hoops, and ribbons. “Oh, yes,” people will generally say, “the thing with the ribbons.”
While most Americans can name at least one artistic gymnast of their generation, usually an Olympic champion—Cathy Rigby or Mary Lou Retton or Kerri Strug—the U.S. has yet to produce a single Olympic champion in rhythmic gymnastics. In fact, in some years, the United States hasn’t even qualified to compete in the Olympics in rhythmic. (Bulgaria, on the other hand, is a powerhouse. As is Belarus.)
Around the world, rhythmic is at least as popular as artistic gymnastics, and in Eastern Europe it’s much more so. More than 30 countries compete in the rhythmic world championships, twice as many as in artistic. The United States, though always something of an underdog, used to hold its own in rhythmic competitions, as immigrants who had grown up with the sport organized clubs and training programs, through which their children competed on behalf of their new homeland. But with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international competitive landscape changed forever as each new republic quickly formed its own team. The Americans, with their informal club system, were no match for girls trained in those state-sponsored and highly centralized programs.