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Experienced Evita Griskenas Leads Team USA At Rhythmic Gymnastics Worlds

By Blythe Lawrence | Oct. 26, 2021, 11:17 a.m. (ET)

Evita Griskenas competes during the individual all-around qualification Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 6, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

Even by pandemic standards, Evita Griskenas’ fall schedule at Columbia University is complicated.

The 20-year-old attends a full slate of classes on the New York City campus Monday through Wednesday, then flies home to Chicago and spends the rest of the week doing double training sessions at North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in nearby Prospect Heights. 

She flies back to New York on Sunday — “Thank goodness for the student discount,” she exclaims — and the cycle begins again.

It’s a big change for Griskenas, who delayed her enrollment at Columbia to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and highly unusual in her sport. Rhythmic gymnastics training tends to be all-encompassing, and its elite athletes often do not tend to pursue higher education or outside projects while preparing for major championships.

Griskenas has decided to try both. She isn’t trying to be a rebel, she explained; she’s trying to branch out and live her life, which now includes more than just rhythmic gymnastics. Like figure skater Nathan Chen, who will be a junior at Yale when he returns in fall 2022, Griskenas believes that she can do both.

Her first major test comes at this week’s world championships in Kitakyushu, Japan, which also happens to correspond with midterms at Columbia.

“It’s not ideal,” Griskenas admits of writing papers between training sessions in Japan, “but I’m handling it.”

Griskenas is used to having a lot on her plate and adapting. She was the highest U.S. finisher in the all-around competition at the 2019 world championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, where she and Laura Zeng earned Team USA two places at the Olympic Games for the first time ever via their rankings.

Griskenas waited patiently through the pandemic and clinched her spot at the Games at the 2021 U.S. championships. She fangirled her way through the Olympic Village, asking every athlete she met to sign folders purchased from the Tokyo 2020 team shop, notched the highest U.S. finish in her event (12th), and walked away happy. 

“I was very pleased,” she said. “I’ve been telling people I didn’t allow myself to feel any actual emotions or to let the reality of what I was doing sink in until I finished my last clubs routine, because my mom always tells me you’re not done until you walk off the carpet. And I wasn’t done until I walked off the carpet of that last routine.”

Evita Griskenas competes during rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 2, 2019 in Lima, Peru.

 

The daughter of Latvian fitness champions — her father Sigitas won the world fitness title in 1997, and her mom Olga was a top competitor — Griskenas does not take her Olympic-sized opportunities for granted. When she took photos of herself in front of the Olympic rings in Tokyo, she made sure to hit the poses that made her father famous.

“They didn’t have an Olympics,” she said. “This was their Olympics.”

“I am overwhelmingly grateful for the entire experience,” she added. “It was God-given to me, and so I’m very very appreciative of it. In terms of how it went, I think it was one of those I-savored-every-single-moment-of-it type of experiences in that I would wake up and go take a walk and I would try to get as much of the Village experience as I could.”

For this world championships, Griskenas initially held her breath, bracing herself for a cancelation.

“Part of me was wondering if it was going to happen, because although it said on paper that it was going to happen I was like, ‘Maybe they’ll cancel it after the Olympics, maybe Japan won’t want to host it again,’” she said. “I know they went into a new series of lockdowns; I wasn’t even sure what was happening, but I was prepared. And good thing I was.”

Competition in Kitakyushu begins Wednesday with all-around and individual apparatus qualifications with the four handheld apparatus — hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon. The best eight with each apparatus advance to hoop and ball finals Wednesday night and clubs and ribbon finals on Thursday. The individual competition culminates with Friday’s all-around final, featuring the best 18 overall gymnasts from the qualifying round.

Griskenas helms a team that includes Tokyo Olympian Lili Mizuno, who competed with the U.S. Group that finished 11th at the Olympics, and newcomer Erica Foster, who at 15 is in her first year of international competition.

“It’s really incredible how I’ve made it (to the world championships) in my first year as a senior, and I’m incredibly honored to represent Team USA,” Foster said. “My goal is to gain experience for future events.”

Mizuno has been on the cusp of worlds team selection for the past several years, and is delighted to be at her first world championships. Like Griskenas, she is also a university student, and eager to show that some of the stereotypes surrounding her sport are not necessarily the way things have to be. 

“I’m just super grateful that I stuck around,” the 20-year-old said. “The fact that I’m still here, I think it’s good proof that an older gymnast can still continue their rhythmic career and achieve great things.”

Blythe Lawrence

Blythe Lawrence has covered three Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. Follow her on Twitter @rockergymnastix.

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