By Lisa Costantini | Sept. 08, 2015, 3:12 p.m. (ET)
Rebecca Sereda competes at the 2014 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships on Sept. 24, 2014 in Izmir, Turkey.


Rebecca Sereda first felt a pain in her back in 2012. For the next two and a half years, she competed in a sport she loved, even with a back injury that would worsen over time into three herniated discs. Despite doing everything she could to fix her serious spine injury — including working with an intensive team that had her doing acupuncture, chiropractic appointments and massages three times a week — she made the decision to retire earlier this year when she realized she was unable to compete at the level she expected of herself. Would you believe it if we told you her sport was rhythmic gymnastics?

The six-time U.S. rhythmic gymnastics all-around champion (three as a senior, three as a junior), now 19 — who is still involved in the sport and recently commentated the 2015 national championships for USA Gymnastics — explains how the sport she had been doing since she was 6 years old is harder than it looks.

Rhythmic gymnastics is a sport many overlook, without realizing the sheer number of skills involved (strength, flexibility, endurance to name a few) and level of talent and effort required to reach the elite level. (To see for yourself, go to USAGym.org to watch the world championships going on this week in Germany.)

Now a student at Boston University majoring in biology with a pre-med track, Sereda shares five reasons why you should never underestimate a rhythmic gymnast.

1. It’s more than just dancing with ribbons

Laura Zeng competes in hoop qualification at the 2015 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships on Sept. 8, 2015 in Stuttgart, Germany.

Most people only associate ribbons with rhythmic gymnastics, but there is a whole lot more to it than that. It’s OK, even Taylor Swift made the mistake. In a behind-the-scenes clip for her music video “Shake It Off” — which featured Team USA rhythmic gymnasts — the pop singer mistakenly called the professional athletes “ribbon dancers.”

But in rhythmic gymnastics there are actually four apparatus, in addition to the ribbon: the hoop, the ball, the club and the rope. Each season, the gymnasts compete with four of the five apparatus. And you have to have a separate routine for each apparatus. “So,” Sereda said, you have to be good at not just one thing, but four.” Not to mention she said you have the added pressure of “always trying to top other gymnasts.”

2. Unlike other sports, they compete while holding equipment

Many Olympic sports involve equipment — water polo has the ball, canoe/kayak has the oar, tennis has the racket — but only rhythmic gymnastics requires an athlete to hold a piece of equipment whose main purpose is to make their job (in this case, gymnastics) more difficult.

According to Sereda, “Our routines last one minute and thirty seconds, and we are competing with the equipment the whole time. And because we’re competing in large stadiums, a lot of times we’re tossing our equipment, and we don’t see it until we’re done with that movement. So it becomes more about feeling your equipment versus seeing it.

“You know where it’s going to end up but coordination comes into play, because the toss might not go where you want it to, or there’s air conditioning that affects it in the air.

“The thing that is most difficult in rhythmic gymnastics is that in one routine you’re focusing on your body elements, while coordinating your equipment while still being musical with the routine and executing it clean.”

3. Endurance plays a big role

“We spend a lot of time in the gym making our routines look effortless and graceful,” Sereda said. In fact it’s the reason “why people sometimes underestimate how difficult our sport is.”

In a routine that is a minute thirty, Sereda said, “you don’t have time to pause. If you have a pause in your routine, it’s an automatic deduction. It’s supposed to be one smooth routine.”

Even finding time to take a breath is hard to do, which is why rhythmic gymnasts practice more than one routine at a time. “We’ll run a few routines to make sure on competition day we’re not dying in the last few seconds of the routine,” she said. “We are very into performing artistically, so we can’t really have that second to take a deep breath or change our facial expression.”

Because there is so much that goes into one routine, a lot of times people won’t understand that. And as a result, she said, “If they don’t understand the sport, they don’t understand how difficult it is.”

4. They practice until the very last second


Laura Zeng competes in the ball final at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games on July 19, 2015 in Toronto.

Rhythmic gymnasts are big believers in the saying, “practice makes perfect.”

During competition, they spend every possible second — up until it’s their turn to perform — practicing their routines, instead of watching their competitors perform.

"We’re in the back repeating everything, and potentially getting tired; we’re not worried about our competitors,” Sereda said.

It’s not always a good thing, though. “Sometimes in the last five minutes before you’re supposed to go on, you realize an element isn’t working and you get stressed out. We don’t always have that calmness before we walk through the curtain,” she said.

5. It’s almost impossible to start at an older age

There are a lot of things you can pick up later in life: riding a bike, learning how to swim… But few sports are impossible to master once you’ve passed a certain age. Rhythmic gymnastics is one of those sports. Because the flexibility required in rhythmic gymnastics is something Sereda said “starts from a younger age when your limbs and body make it easier to stretch.”

Then, over years of training, “the coaches have techniques for how they help you stretch. And then by the time you’re older, you just have to maintain it to keep your flexibility.”

Yoga helps keep them limber, too, according to Sereda, who said it is “good for stretching you out and keeping your body warm.

“Rhythmic gymnastics pulls from everywhere. It’s a combination of things like gymnastics, ballet, yoga and dance. We start our warm-ups with ballet because our pirouettes and turns are all based on ballet. And then in 2013 when dancing for eight steps was made a requirement for every routine, a lot of us started taking dance classes. We take a lot from other sports — which is what makes our sport unique.”