The members of the U.S. women’s rhythmic gymnastics group waited in the “kiss and cry” area for their score in the five ribbons event at the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships already feeling as if they couldn’t have performed any better.
They’d executed well, delivered a clean routine and done the best they could, so when the score of 16.066 appeared they were overjoyed. It was their second score of 16 or better in the competition to go along with a 16.233 in six clubs/two hoops, and they’d never done so well before.
Better still, with their 13th-place overall finish, they believed they’d qualified for the Olympic Games Test Event in April 2016. They hugged and, yes, they kissed and cried.
They had no idea that they’d just secured an Olympic berth for the United States.
“I really feel like we were the last to know,” Natalie McGiffert said. “We were so happy with our performance that everyone just thought we knew.”
McGiffert didn’t learn the enormity of what had just happened until they were back at the team hotel and her dad sent her a text saying, “You do know you’re going to the Olympics, right?”
Teammate Alisa Kano was also in her hotel room and saw the story online.
“My roommate, Monica Rokhman, was in the shower and I yelled, ‘Monica, I think we made the Olympics! I think we’re actually going to the Olympics!’” Kano said. “She started bawling. We all did.”
This is the first time the United States has ever qualified a group for the Olympic Games in rhythmic gymnastics. The only other time the country competed as a group was in 1996 in Atlanta when Team USA had a host country spot.
|The U.S. rhythmic gymnastics group competes in the group all-around at the 2015 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships on Sept. 12, 2015 in Stuttgart, Germany.
The Americans earned their bid at the world championships by finishing as the highest-placed country outside of Europe and Asia, and thereby ensuring that at least three continents will be represented in Rio.
Independent of earning the continental berth, rhythmic program director Caroline Hunt said, the group’s scores were strong enough that they were in the running for earning an outright spot at the Games.
“It speaks to the level of where they are and how far the development has come,” she said.
Since 2006, Hunt said, USA Gymnastics and its coaches have been engaged in a very collective, concerted effort to revitalize and revamp the rhythmic program with the specific goal of competing in Rio in 2016. Developing athletes to compete against top competition from countries where rhythmic gymnastics is more popular, such as Russia, has always been a challenge for American coaches. In the past decade, however, the United States has focused on development, education and creating a base so that by the time athletes reach the senior division and compete in the Pan American Games, world championships and, hopefully, the Olympic Games, the squad has the depth and talent to contend.
The core of the current group, which consists of Kiana Eide, Jennifer Rokhman and Kristen Shaldybin in addition to Kano, McGiffert and Monica Rokhman, has been together since 2012. In addition to their success in the world championships in September, they earned Team USA’s first-ever Pan American gold medal in the six clubs/two hoops final and earned silver in the all-around and five ribbons finals in July.
In addition to possessing the skills and abilities required of a top group, Hurt said, this group has shown outstanding cohesiveness on the floor.
“You have to be so in tune with one another to be able to handle anything, any potential mistake, and adjust and manage,” she said. “So many things can happen when you have five sets of apparatus flying at the same time and you’re exchanging apparatus, and especially with complicated and challenging routines. You have to be in synch mentally and physically to be able to handle those moments and make the exercise come across as a clean performance. It’s that unique relationship among athletes that not every group can have.”
That relationship comes by virtue of feeling like a family, Kano said. She believes they’re lucky to have found one another, because not every group gets along as well as theirs.
“When we first met as a group we just all kind of clicked and became friends and our personalities just matched,” said Kano, 20, who, like many members of the group, relocated several years ago to the Chicago area to train full time. “We’re all so close now, we’re like sisters.”
For Kano, her love of rhythmic gymnastics goes back to when she first started at 9 years old. She remembers watching the Olympic Games and dreaming of being in the Games, but it often seemed little more than wishful thinking.
“It was honestly a dream I didn’t think was possible,” she said. “It would be a dream come true. Now it actually came true, so for us it’s just amazing that we can represent the U.S. in Rio.”
McGiffert’s Olympic dream started by chance. Her mother won a school raffle for an intro to gymnastics class, and while McGiffert was there the rhythmic coach saw her and suggested to her mom that she give it a try.
“I watched the ribbon and I just said, ‘I want to do that; that’s so cool,’” said McGiffert, who was just 7 at the time. “That was when I stared and I couldn’t stop. I’m 18 now and I still absolutely love it. It’s a little harder than before, but it’s still just a pleasure to be doing it.”
The United States hasn’t solidified its selection procedures for the team roster just yet, but one thing for sure is that five of the six members will be part of the group that competes in Rio and the sixth will be the alternate.
It won’t be easy, Hunt said, but it’s a strong team of six.
“They’re really united,” she said. “Whoever gets called for that task in Rio, I believe they will all be supportive of each other and whatever needs to get done. They know and we all know that all six are Olympic caliber athletes and Olympians in their own right. It’s the achievement of all six to have qualified.
“They really area a group that’s all about the U.S. and the team. I have faith in them that they’ll embrace whatever the final decision is and just handle it like they’ve handled everything else.”