Friday, Jan. 9, 2009

Young athletes get in rhythm

Locals sweep gold at Rhythmic Gymnastics Group National Championships

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On Dec. 27, while most students were enjoying their winter breaks, relaxing and enjoying their holiday gifts, four young Montgomery County athletes were working hard at an eight-hour rhythmic gymnastics practice at Rhythmflex in Gaithersburg.

It’s days like that when Carly Johnson (age 11, of Poolesville), Jenna Feeley (10, Germantown), Sofia Ameti (10, Germantown) and Alona Guseva (13, Rockville) sometimes feel they’re missing out. But there’s nothing like a national title for motivation.

‘‘It’s frustrating sometimes because I want to go hang out with my friends, but I know if I work hard, I can go far,” Johnson said. ‘‘No one at school really knows much about [rhythmic gymnastics] but to us, it’s a big thing. And we work really hard.”

Rhythmflex athletes swept the Rhythmic Gymnastics Group National Championships Dec. 8 in Wytheville, Va. Johnson, Feeley, Ameti and Guseva teamed with Catherine Panasenkov (12, Gaithersburg) and Lilia Geston (10, Gaithersburg) to win the gold medal in the intermediate division. Camilla Feeley (8, Germantown), Natalia Stepanova (8, Rockville), Janet Shi (9, Gaithersburg) and Mia Shparaga (8, Baltimore) finished first in the beginner category.

‘‘When we got on the podium to receive our medals, we were just like, ‘Wow, this is really big,’” Guseva said.

Rhythmic gymnastics, an Olympic sport since 1984, combines the art of ballet, flexibility and strength, with the manipulation of various equipment including ribbons, batons, hoops, clubs and ropes. In group rhythmic gymnastics, five athletes perform a choreographed routine, similar to synchronized swimming. The December event in Virginia was Rhythmflex’s first foray into group competition.

‘‘In group rhythmic gymnastics they have to work all together, they have to have the ability to collaborate on tosses and things like that,” said Marina Eremenko, one of three Rhythmflex coaches. ‘‘And group helps them when they compete individually because it teaches them to be more responsible. They have to try harder. They have to do everything exactly right because if they do one thing just a little bit wrong, then their teammates won’t be able to continue.”

Johnson, Guseva and their teammates are used to getting flack from their peers. Outsiders just don’t understand the intricacies of rhythmic gymnastics and the athleticism required to truly succeed at the sport.

Picture this: running across the floor to do a front flip, then tossing up a hoop or some clubs; while they’re airborne, doing three summersaults, finishing just in time to catch the hoop or clubs behind your back. Not so easy.

Group nationals marked the end of the 2007 season. The Rhythmflex athletes are now training for individual competitions, going an average of four hours a day, five days a week.

The country is divided into six regions. Athletes compete at a regional tournament at their level — Level 4 is the lowest at national competitions and Level 9 is the highest, just under Olympic level, Level 10.

The top 10 finishers in Levels 4-6 advance to Classics (nationals for that level). The top eight in Levels 7-8 qualify for Junior Olympics and the top eight at Level 9 advance to East-West national qualifiers, where the top 20 gain entry to the national competition.

Rhythmflex has sent athletes to nationals in each of its 15 years. It’s had athletes compete at world championships as well and, in 1992, sent Tamara Levinson to the Olympics.

‘‘I feel like sometimes people see us and think we look weird with what we’re doing,” Ameti said. ‘‘But winning a gold medal at a national competition, that makes you keep going even though it’s hard.”