The U.S. rhythmic gymnastics team made history in more ways than one at this week’s World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
One day after Laura Zeng earned Team USA’s highest-ever result in the individual all-around, the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics group qualified the country for the Olympic Games for only the second time in history.
Team USA was one of 10 countries to secure spots for the 2016 Olympics at the world championships. After finishing 13th in the group all-around, the U.S. was the highest-placed country outside of Asia and Europe, qualifying to ensure at least three continents are represented in Rio. An additional four groups will qualify at the Olympic test event in April 2016.
“There is no question that the USA Rhythmic Program has arrived on the global stage,” said USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny. “The team effort from the staff, coaches, athletes, and everyone connected to the program has resulted in a fantastic achievement at the World Championships this weekend.”
The group that competed in Germany and that will hope to earn the right to fill that quota spot trains at North Shore Rhythmic Gymnasts Center in Illinois and is comprised of Kiana Eide, Alisa Kano, Natalie McGiffert, Monica Rokhman, Jennifer Rokhman and Kristen Shaldybin.
The only other time the U.S. has competed in group rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympics was at the Atlanta 1996 Games, where the team earned an automatic host country spot. Team USA finished ninth of nine teams that year. The group rhythmic event made its Olympic debut in Atlanta, and Russia has won four of the five gold medals awarded since.
Earlier this week, Zeng finished eighth in the individual all-around. The previous highest finish by an American was Mary Sanders’ 10th place in 2003. Zeng also finished seventh in the clubs final, as the first American to qualify for the world club final since Sanders in ’03, when she, too, finished seventh.
Similar to the group, Zeng’s performance earned the U.S. a quota spot in Rio. The top 15 gymnasts in Stuttgart qualified their countries, with a maximum of two spots per nation. The last time the U.S. qualified for the Olympics at the first-opportunity world championships was in 2003.
Zeng will compete in multiple competitions next year to attempt to earn her spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team and become only the ninth Olympic gymnast to represent Team USA in individual rhythmic competition, which made its Olympic debut in 1984. Of the eight, the highest finish to date was 11th by Valerie Zimring in 1984.
The U.S. began its summer of success at the Pan American Games in July, when Zeng swept the gold medals in the individual all-around and all four event finals, becoming only the second athlete ever to win all five rhythmic golds (Sanders was the first). Teammate Jazzy Kerber took all-around silver, and three silvers and a bronze in the event finals.
Also in Toronto, the U.S. rhythmic group won Team USA’s first Pan Ams gold in group rhythmic competition, winning the six clubs/two hoops final. The group also earned silver in the all-around and five ribbons finals.