“Elegant.” “Beautiful.” “Unabashedly girly.” For a long time, I struggled to put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me about many descriptions of my sport. I agree and appreciate that it is beautiful. Yet even relatively positive descriptions of rhythmic in the media haven’t, in my opinion, explained what makes it a difficult, legitimate sport. It’s hard to fully appreciate rhythmic gymnastics without understanding its rules and technique.
Articles I’ve found that try to prove rhythmic gymnastics’ difficulty tend to focus on the emotional stress gymnasts face when competing, the bruises their bodies bear from intense practices, and harsh coaches who put girls on extreme diets and berate them for their mistakes. Yet this is an incomplete (not to mention negative) explanation.
So what is it that makes rhythmic UNIQUELY difficult? If Usain Bolt runs faster than anyone else and Ronaldo makes an exceptionally high number of goals, what is it that a top rhythmic gymnast does that few other humans can?
Anfisa Kurpriyanova, who has coached alongside me for several years, made a good point. Anfisa was a member of the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics National Team and has also competed in powerlifting and swimming, plus is now trying out for college diving. She gave swimming the award for the most physically difficult sport she’s tried, but rhythmic, she said, was the hardest in that so much happens at once.
Some say no one can truly multitask. A rhythmic gymnast might beg to differ. In rhythmic gymnastics, apparatus and body technique are both complicated, and both must be executed perfectly AND simultaneously. I’ve noticed especially that the average viewer fails to recognize the huge role that the apparatus plays in the sport’s difficulty.
More than once, I’ve heard rhythmic gymnastics viewers comment, “It’s amazing that when she throws the ball, it always comes down in the right spot!” I can’t help but laugh in frustration. Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s amazing that when LeBron James throws a basketball, it happens to land right in the hoop”? Of course not. We know why James gets it right; a combination of talent, excellent technique, and lots and lots of practice. The same goes for rhythmic gymnasts. In addition, every rhythmic gymnast must know how to throw and catch four different objects–hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon–each with slightly different techniques, and each in multiple ways.
Second, good rhythmic gymnasts are smart. Our rules evolve rapidly, with significant changes after each Olympic Games, and coaches and athletes must keep up with them. The gold medalist at each Olympics tends to be not only someone who’s well-suited to that set of rules, but who perfectly understands how to make the most of them–where to find ways to add that extra bit of difficulty or cleverly avoid common execution deductions. It might seem that a surprising number of rhythmic National Team members have gone on to Ivy League or other top universities, especially given that we are not an NCAA sport. I don’t think that’s happened just by chance.
At a time when artistic gymnastics is increasingly viewed as a power sport, it is important to realize that rhythmic is not its less powerful equivalent. Despite some overlapping features, rhythmic and artistic require fundamentally different skill sets, each with their own challenges. I will never view a sport as lesser for having an aesthetic element, and I love rhythmic gymnastics’ beauty–that is a topic for another article. But if artistic gymnastics has gained respect as it has emphasized power over artistry, we must recognize rhythmic gymnastics’ increasing technical difficulty, too. I would love to see English language media and commentators analyze this aspect of the sport more. And the next time you see a rhythmic gymnast throw a ball, turn around twice, and catch it with her legs in the middle of a front walkover, take a moment to process it. No one is born with the “elegance” or “luck” required to catch something upside down with their legs. That’s incredible hand-eye coordination plus technique and lots of hard work.