Hoop Dreams

North Shore Rhythmics, based in Glenview, is the home base of some of the country’s most elite athletes. Its head coach, Natalia Klimouk, is a star in her field. So why has no one heard of it? As rhythmic gymnastics struggles to overcome invisibility, one local team strives for the ultimate validation.

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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.

 

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comments
6 years ago
Posted by Anya Z

I loved it! It was both funny and inspiring at the same time. I am a gymnast myself, and I've heard of Lisa wang but never seen her. I was totally fascinated.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Thank you so much for such an indepth look into such a beautiful sport! The writer captured so much for us readers :)

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

YES, excellent overview of USA rhythmic.
I am an American that follows elite rhythmic gymnastics internationally (photographer). I learned a lot (blush) about my own country in rhythmic gymnastics, reading this overview. Only the writer missed mentioning Ukraine among the rhythmic powerhouse countries. Yet so many parts of this USA overview were right on. The words "struggles to overcome invisibility", describes exactly the long-time situation in USA. Many people I meet here, will also exclaim those exact words, "the thing with the ribbons". The writer, Debra Pickett, excellently conveyed the dedication and passion you have to have to be a rhythmic gymnast in our North American culture. For journalists even, it is really hard (mainstream USA gymnastics magazines are dominated by artistic gymnastics and rarely will cover rhythmic). On Olympic years, just NBC Sports carries it briefly at the end of the Games. Thanks so much.
Tom Theobald
San Diego, California

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Thank you so much for this amazing article. It is a great depiction the obstacles rhythmic gymnasts need to overcome in a continent with such little recognition. The hard work and talent needed to succeed in this sport is extraordinary.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Wow, what a great article! It's SO nice to see articles about rhythmic gymnastics in American magazines and newspapers. thank you so much!

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