By Blythe Lawrence | Oct. 01, 2019, 12 p.m. (ET)

 

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With an Olympic berth for the U.S. in rhythmic gymnastics attained through her efforts, Evita Griskenas has temporarily retired to Florida.

“I am happily celebrating by dipping my feet in some sand and ocean,” the 18-year-old reported in an email to TeamUSA.org following her exploits at the recent FIG Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The few days break before preparation for Tokyo begins in earnest is well deserved. By dint of her eighth-place all-around finish in the Azerbaijani capital, Griskenas secured her country one of two individual Olympic qualification places for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in rhythmic gymnastics. Laura Zeng, a 2016 Olympian and Griskenas’ training partner at North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in Glenview, Illinois, grabbed the other, giving the U.S. the maximum number of seats available at the Olympic table in the sport for the first time since well before either was born.

The U.S. has not mustered that Olympic might in rhythmic, artistic gymnastics’ elegant, sequin-spangled cousin, which features feats of acrobatics with handheld apparatuses concentrated around a hoop, ball, pair of clubs or nearly 20-foot ribbon, since 1992. The Olympic dream, however, has been a reality for Griskenas since she was a young child. Many of her childhood drawings, she said in Baku, featured young Evita doing routines under Olympic rings.

The daughter of Latvian fitness champions Sigitas and Olga Griskenas — her father won a world fitness title in 1997 — who settled in Illinois shortly before Evita was born, Griskenas grew up with a foot in the worlds of the east and west. She speaks fluent Russian and English, and understands Slovenian and Polish. More than that, she ascended the levels as a rhythmic gymnast, a sport firmly anchored in eastern Europe, through ever more impressive performances.

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Evita Griskenas competes at the Panamerican Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 4, 2019 in Lima, Peru.

 

It is that sense of performance, of theater to Griskenas’ work that sets her apart, she feels. On the carpet with her apparatus, “I am not simply competing, but rather, I am performing and really enjoying my passions and emotions on the floor,” she said. “I am feeling excited and motivated to continuously improve myself and be the best version of myself that I can be.”

While many choose classical or classic pieces, Griskenas and coach Natalia Klimouk have broken the mold, choosing contemporary pieces of music that set Griskenas’ exercises apart. 

In a quadrennium where difficulty has become open-ended, forcing gymnasts to do more than ever with the apparatus, Griskenas has come into her own after careful consideration of the code and how to adapt it to her strengths. At this summer’s Pan American Games Lima 2019, she took gold medals in the all-around as well as with the hoop, ball and ribbon, in addition to a bronze with the clubs behind Camilla Feeley, who completed the American sweep of the golds. 

The hardware made Griskenas the most successful American athlete in Lima, though she wouldn’t go so far as to say it helped her in Baku. Throughout the psychologically demanding five-day competition at worlds, Griskenas took a one-day-at-a-time approach, reminding herself that past results didn’t matter in what she was attempting to accomplish.

“Evita has always had a solid foundation,” Zeng said “I think this Olympic cycle has been really suitable towards her strengths. This code of points awards execution with less deductions if a gymnast has strong fundamentals, and her clean elements and transitions are a testament to that.”

By the time she took the floor at worlds, Griskenas was at the top of her capabilities, and proved it by notching the best American finish in the all-around, an improvement of nine places over her 17th-place finish in 2018.

Because she and Zeng earned the U.S. its quota places for Tokyo, the two will both head to Japan next summer provided both place in the top three in the all-around at next June’s USA Gymnastics Championships.

Heading into the Olympic year, Griskenas is coy about the shape her routines will take.

“The goal, as always, for Team USA is to practice consistency and to emphasize our strengths in elements, artistry and mastery so it is safe to assume that the routines will head in that direction,” she said. 

Griskenas doesn’t rule out competing beyond Tokyo, either.

“Sport is such a great way to keep up with discipline and I have had so many opportunities from it,” she said. “So as long as my mind and body are healthy, I would love to continue rhythmic.”

Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.