There was a lot going behind the scenes at the World Games Rhythmic Gymnastics Level 4 final competition – things that go beyond the athletes’ intensive training on balance, pivot, flexibility and leap.
Practicing at one side of the gym was Gizela from Slovakia, who has been working through a tough time since the unexpected death of her father. It’s been two years, but things haven’t gotten easier. Always an eager performer and competitor, she seemed uninterested in going to Los Angeles. But her coach and friends have been hoping that coming to World Games might help her break through to a brighter day.
Waiting patiently on the other side was Aziza, a gymnast from Tajikistan who has been trying to stay strong and focused, alone and without her coach. The coach’s visa was denied at the last minute, so Aziza had to continue on halfway around the world to the US, not knowing the language and with only a US interpreter to keep her company. At age 15, she is also the youngest gymnast in Level 4.
Then there were the two veteran gymnasts from Team Canada – Christina and Emily – who are making what may be their last World Games appearances. They’ve declared their plans to “retire’ from gymnastics after these Games to pursue other goals, including other sports and perhaps coaching. So this competition was a bit sentimental and already feeling a bit nostalgic.
Next, emerging from the dressing room in a gorgeous costume, was Danielle, the US athlete who won gold at the 2011 World Summer Games in Athens – and has been training 7 days a week to do even better in Los Angeles. She is confident and serene.
Helping keeping everyone and everything organized is a dedicated young gymnastics official, Lani, who is one of a growing number of Special Olympics athletes who have been trained to serve as officials during competition. Lani is also a longtime friend to nearly all the gymnasts in this competition, many of whom have known each other since competing at the 2007 World Summer Games in Shanghai.
“We are all like family here,” says Lani’s mom, Ana. “We are here for each other – even when they live far away.” In fact, Lani, who lives in Georgia, USA, considers fellow gymnast Melissa one of her best friends, even though Melissa lives in Mexico.
When the finals actually began, each athlete’s routine was unique, showing off their individual talents, personalities – even musical tastes. These Level 4 finalists performed before a packed gymnasium – and several seemed to be inspired by the applauds and cheers. “We had at least 100 people standing outside in line, waiting to get in on the first day,” said Special Olympics Technical Delegate and longtime coach Cindy Bickman.
Then it was all in the hands of the judges, several of whom had previously served as judges for US Olympic competitions.
Now smiling and energized, Gizela learned her performances earned her a silver and 4 bronze medals. As one coach put it, “She’s just like her old self again!“
A more relaxed and radiant smile lit up young Aziza’s face, after she earned two silver medals, a bronze and a fourth-place ribbon.
Both Team Canada athletes — Emily and Christina – are concluding this phase of their sports careers on a very high note: two gold medals and 2 silver for Emily and no less than 4 gold medals for Christina. But there was yet another medal that Christina played a big part in achieving: the silver earned by the Gymnastic Group she coached – her first-time ever coaching at a World Games!
As for Danielle, she demonstrated once again that hard work pays off: winning three gold and two silver medals.
When the competition ended, the crowd went home. But the rhythmic gymnasts – medalists and non-medalists alike – celebrated, took pictures together and enjoyed the moments that had brought them all together all week long.