FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Inside a banquet hall filled with world champions and rising stars from two different continents, it was only fitting that U.S. rhythmic gymnast Evita Griskenas would take the stage and accept another award.
After all, she has been accepting a lot of them lately.
Griskenas was the most decorated athlete in any sport at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 this past summer. After bringing home an astounding five medals—including four golds—in rhythmic gymnastics, Griskenas was one of 17 winners honored at the inaugural Panam Sports Awards on Friday night.
Griskenas, who turned 19 earlier this month, beat out five other finalists for the Women’s NextGen (Under-20 Female) Award, which was voted on by the public.
“This is my first time doing an event like this and it’s been fascinating,” Griskenas said while walking the red carpet for the star-studded event. “I’ve been able to talk with so many different athletes, and it’s even cooler because this is the first Panam Sports Awards. To be a part of all of this is really just a huge honor.”
More than 40 athletes and coaches from Lima 2019 were nominated across nine fan-voted categories. The nominees and invited guests were treated to a cocktail reception, live music and an entertaining ceremony that showcased the best of the best of sport in North and South America.
Team USA was well represented at the event as Griskenas was joined by two more award winners. After securing a combined 293 medals at the 2019 Pan American Games, Team USA won the award for Best National Olympic Committee (NOC) while Carl Lewis, the iconic track and field star, took home the Legend Award.
“I came to my first Pan Am Games back in 2003 and I have to say the rest of the region is tightening the gap on Team USA,” said softball pitcher Cat Osterman, who accepted the award on behalf of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. “During these past Pan Am Games, we got the daily report every morning that had the medal updates, and it was thrilling to see so many of our U.S. athletes doing so well. I’m really hoping we can take this momentum into Tokyo for the Olympics next year.”
Osterman knows a little something about international competition. The two-time Olympic medalist became a three-time Pan American Games gold medalist this past summer when Team USA beat Canada, 3-1, in the gold-medal game. The Americans finished the eight-team tournament leading in nearly every statistical category, and outscored their opponents by a 45-6 margin.
“Canada has really built up its program, and it has been great to see the game of softball evolve internationally,” said Osterman, whose team was also a finalist for the Best Women’s Team award. “That’s the biggest difference – it’s so much more competitive now.”
Carl Lewis (R) is interviewed on the red carpet at the 2019 Panam Sports Awards on Dec. 13, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Lewis’ career includes nine Olympic gold medals, one Olympic silver and 10 world championship medals in track and field. He participated in four Olympic Games, making history in 1984 when he equaled Jesse Owens' legendary performance by winning four gold medals in a single Games.
Lewis’ first Pan American Games medal came in the long jump—a bronze—at San Juan 1979. At the 1987 Games in Indianapolis he won long jump gold and 4x100 gold.
“My mother was at the very first Pan Am Games [in 1951], and it was my first international team experience, so these Games will always be close to my heart,” said the 58-year-old Lewis, who is the only man to win the long jump Olympic title four consecutive times. “It’s also great to see this region continue to excel on the world stage, from Canada all the way down to Argentina. America has always been the leaders but these countries in South America and the Caribbean are really starting to produce some athletes. It’s going to be exciting to watch.”
If Osterman and Lewis are considered veterans for the U.S. Olympic movement, then Griskenas definitely represents the future.
Less than one month after the 2019 Pan American Games, Griskenas placed eighth in the all-around at the rhythmic gymnastics world championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. It secured an Olympic spot for Team USA at the upcoming Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Teammate and 2016 Olympian Laura Zeng finished 10th and earned the other, giving the U.S. two quota spots in rhythmic gymnastics for the first time since 1992.
Evita Griskenas (L) is interviewed on the red carpet at the 2019 Panam Sports Awards on Dec. 13, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“Laura and I push each other,” said Griskenas, who plans to leave Florida the day after the awards show to resume her training in Chicago. “I’ve learned so much from her. The future is definitely bright for USA and rhythmic gymnastics.”
Both of Griskenas’ parents were international athletes and coaches, and she thanked them during her acceptance speech. Her father, Sigitas, served as the Lithuanian national fitness team coach until 2000, and was by her side during the awards show on Friday.
“My parents have had a huge role in my development but they never really pushed sports on me at an early age,” Griskenas said. “I just remember watching rhythmic gymnastics on TV when I was a little girl, and knew that was what I wanted to do.”
Griskenas has a shelf over her bed at her home in Illinois where her five Pan American medals are displayed. She said she will proudly add her Panam Sports Award to the collection when she gets home.
“But I still need to leave a little more space on that shelf,” Griskenas said. “Because I’m hoping to add an Olympic medal next year.”