Serena Lu’s path as a member of the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics national team has been anything but typical.

October 3, 2022
Belicia Tang

Listen to the full interview on our podcast!

by Athlete Voices Podcast

Serena Lu’s path as a member of the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics national team has been anything but typical. 

At 24, Serena Lu defies age-limiting stereotypes with her return to elite rhythmic gymnastics following a five-year hiatus from the sport. 

Athlete’s Voices first featured Serena in 2019, during her junior year at Princeton University. Serena has been working as an investigative analyst at the District’s Attorney’s office in New York City, in addition to building her career as an actor and dancer. In 2021, she decided to make a comeback to rhythmic gymnastics after five years out of the sport. She placed 4th at the 2022 U.S. National Championships, which secured her spot on the National Team once again. In this interview, Serena and I delve into her comeback, how she juggles early twenties’ adulting with national team training, and what it’s like returning to the game with fresh perspective and maturity. 

Q: What did you study at Princeton? 

 A: Psychology. I also got a certificate in cognitive science, which was connected to the psychology, and a certificate in dance.

 Q: Where would you say you were mentally and emotionally in your relationship with rhythmic gymnastics towards the end of college, and right before the comeback? 

 A: I was past the anger towards it. In terms of mentality, I had gone through all that process of grieving a loss. I felt like I could move on if I didn’t interact with [rhythmic]. I just blocked it out. I didn’t want to watch any rhythmic videos, I didn’t want to know anything. I still had really good friends in the sport, like Laura and Camilla, and I wanted to be there for them. But I really did try to distance myself as much as I could from hearing about it or directly having an involvement. And I think in an alternative universe, yeah, maybe I could have indulged in that space and really distanced myself away from it and not interacted with [rhythmic] ever again. But I think that wasn’t what I wanted, that wasn’t the relationship I wanted to have after doing it for so many years of my life, to pretend like this doesn’t exist anymore. And then after a lot of time away from it, and a lot of space, then going back to it, you kind of see it again for what it is without the other stuff. I could return to where the love all first began or how I saw it when I was younger. 

 Q: Tell me about what went into the decision to come back to rhythmic.

 A: During COVID, I started coaching over Zoom for a bit. That brought me back into [rhythmic]. I really returned to the base of rhythmic gymnastics and saw what was at the root of it, and these kids who were, I hope, having a good time. Through that, I realized I still had a passion for it. But at the time, I didn’t know that it would manifest into me coming back. I was just like, “Oh, I do realize how much the sport has impacted my life. And it’s still very important to me.” When my home gym reopened, I went to visit and also started coaching regularly. In the meantime, I started my position as athlete representative with USA Gymnastics. That drew me into the more logistical processes of the sport. So, I was around a lot for the 2021 season and got to travel with the national team nationally and internationally for competitions. 

 At some point, I realized there was something there. Every time I would go to a competition and watch, I would feel some type of way that I couldn’t really pinpoint. I was confused for the beginning portion of 2021. I was like, “Is this nostalgia?” And you’re always going to miss something from a past part of your life. So I kind of chalked it up to being nostalgic. But then each competition that I went to and saw the whole process again, from when you arrive, and your training, and the little seconds that lead up to [performing] I realized I kind of missed the whole thing. This was starting at the beginning of 2021. It took a while for me to entertain the idea that maybe I wasn’t quite finished. So it was a competition in Poland, I think, where I really voiced it out to someone that I trusted there. And she was like, “All right, you should come back.”

 Q: What was your coach’s reaction to your decision?

 A: I mentioned it to my coach, kind of like, “I had this crazy idea…” I just talked about how I felt, because my coach and I are very close. She said, “Okay, fine, you’re never going to know until you try it.” And she was very frank about it. She said, “I don’t know if this is possible. No one’s ever really done it. I can’t give you a guarantee that this is going to work out. But after National Qualifiers, you’re going to have your first practice.” And that was that.

 Q: How did your parents respond to the comeback?

 A:The first time I told my parents that I wanted to come back was when I was at the Pan American Championships with the juniors last year, around the same time as Nationals. At this point, I had gone to a couple practices. So I told my parents, and I called them individually. I think I called my mom first, and she was very staunchly against it. She said, “You have to let go of it.” My dad was also not enthusiastic. He was like, “It was so much time, why would you essentially waste your time doing that?” It was a very lukewarm response. I think my mom came around when I sent her [a video of my] routine. She was just floored. She said, “It looks different than it did before.” And I think she texted me saying, “I can tell how much you love it. And that makes it worth it.” 

 Q: Tell me about your day-to-day juggling work and gymnastics. 

 A: I am one of the few people out of my friends who works in person every day, five days a week. I have my own apartment, and I start my day around 6:45 a.m. I have to work at least a certain number of hours a day, and typically it’s nine to five. I explained my situation, and [my boss] let me shift it to eight to four. We train most days in the gym that’s in Brooklyn. I work in Manhattan, and that’s a one-and-a-half to two-hour trip. It’s two subways and a bus. So I sprint out of the office at 4pm. I probably get to the gym around 5:45pm, and I train until 9:30pm. Then I go back to my apartment. I used to actually take the trains and the buses home, which means I would get home at 11:30 p.m. or 12 a.m. But because of the safety and the subways and everything in New York, my dad, who has very much come around the idea of me coming back, will now drive me back home.

 Q: How do you physically handle this schedule? Do you take power naps? 

 A: I think when my body tells me it’s time to sleep, I have to give in. But one thing I wish I could do more often throughout the day is take a power nap. I have Mondays off, which was what my schedule always was. I also have classes on Mondays and Tuesdays for acting. So it’s not restful, but it’s fine.

 Q: I think about many young twenty-somethings who have their nine to five jobs, and then drink and party– and nothing wrong with that. But I was thinking, you clearly don’t have that life. You’ve had to sacrifice it. What is that like? 

 A: I was actually thinking about this other day because now that it’s summer and my schedule will be more adaptable, there are portions of it that I do miss, like seeing friends and doing things that really define, I guess, your early twenties. But one of the reasons why it was okay coming back and sacrificing those things was because I have done that already in college. I knew I had fully lived it in college. But it’s nice to do it once in a while. I would obviously show up for a friend’s birthday. Another thing that grounds me is social time with friends.

 Q: Rhythmic gymnastics is not an NCAA sport, and U.S. rhythmic gymnasts are not doing this professionally. So the financial aspect of this sport becomes complicated for working adults who continue the sport. How can we give more support to rhythmic gymnasts who want to continue competing during, and even after, college? 

 A: Elena Shinohara really first opened my eyes to how many people actually could be interested in rhythmic. I think we always assume people are not going to be interested in rhythmic gymnastics because it’s, like, a girly sport. But people are really interested in the content. And I think there’s a lot in the market for sponsorships or ways of publicizing the sport that can fit [into] the mainstream media. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think it could help support athletes who want to do this as a longer term thing. 

 Q: Are you still an athlete representative?

 A: Yes. Evita [Griskenas] and I are both athlete representatives. We sit on the Athlete’s Council, which is a group of athlete representatives from all the different disciplines [of gymnastics], and it’s a great group. We are a lot more involved now with USA Gymnastics because everyone on [the Council] has a similar goal, and the executive team now has become so much more integrated. They are more open to hearing about the athlete experience. About funding, for example, they’ve made huge improvements already in terms of how athletes will get funded. The 8 years I was on the national team, I didn’t get any additional funding. But now, they’ve really pushed to expand how many athletes can get covered. We have got to keep pushing to see where other opportunities are.

 Q: I’m observing that there’s more of a push for athlete mental health these days. Would you say that that change is apparent, and something you guys are actively working towards right now?

 A: Yeah, there are a lot of efforts. The idea that the athlete needs to be prioritized is becoming more and more apparent. The fact that there have to be a certain number of athlete representatives on any committee in USA Gymnastics is huge. Obviously, there is so much left to do. With mental health, I would like to see more happening, and we’re always going to keep pushing for more to happen. But I think if we keep going with the same mentality and we all share a similar goal, I am optimistic to see where things are gonna go. But it’s not been easy. Even if it’s just a couple of cases of abuse, and even if the majority of gymnasts were having a good enough experience, why did the [abuse] happen? We can’t get complacent.


Follow Serena’s comeback journey:

Instagram: @serenajlu

TikTok: @serenajluuu



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