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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Klimouk and Lisa Wang, the sport’s reigning national champion, discuss the mechanics of a particularly challenging new sequence.

 

In Europe, Klimouk says, the tiny Wang—she stands about five feet tall—would not have been encouraged, or even allowed, to train in rhythmic. But in the United States, she competes alongside national teammate Ava Gehringer, of Evanston, who stands five feet ten and a half and cuts the long, lean profile typical of European competitors. What Wang and Gehringer seem to have in common, though—and this is a trait that seems present in many U.S. rhythmic competitors—is unyielding self-discipline.

It is the kind of discipline that keeps a dozen girls practicing on a sunny Thursday afternoon, after a full day of school, when their two coaches, Dani Takova and Angelina Yovcheva (Klimouk is already in Greece, with Wang and Gehringer), are huddled together in a backroom, out of sight. Takova, acupuncture textbook in hand, is using an electric needle to treat Yovcheva’s sore back.

Yovcheva, who competed for the Bulgarian national team before becoming a coach, is in charge of training North Shore Rhythmics’ competitive “group.” (Rhythmic events feature individual and group performances.) The young women in North Shore’s group—including 17-year-old Kristian Brooks, formerly a highly accomplished individual competitor, who moved from Michigan to train here—have given up their individual careers to compete together. Though they are the top-ranked team in the United States, almost no one expects them to do well enough in Greece to qualify for an Olympic berth. (Only one U.S. group has ever made it; that was in 1996, when Atlanta hosted the games.)

Still, the girls keep tossing and catching and tumbling and counting. Because they leave for Greece in two days. And you never know.

The country’s best hope at the world championships is Wang, who competes as an individual. She has already proved herself in international competition, winning the Pan-American games, and, deferring her acceptance to Yale University for a year, she has been training full-time since graduating early from Stevenson High School in December. Gehringer, who is there only as an alternate, has also put off college for a year. “A lot of people really look down on that decision,” she says, but, while she is eager to begin her studies at New York University, she found she just couldn’t leave rhythmic without giving herself one more chance to become a champion.

 

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