Liza Merenzon, class of 2023 (second from left), was a substitute for the women’s rhythmic gymnastics team at the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy of Liza Merenzon, class of 2023)
Liza Merenzon, class of 2023, was at a business club reunion last fall when asked how she spent her summer. She offered a version of the truth: she went to Tokyo. But a listener who knew the real story didn’t let her play it so cool. “She went to the Olympics,” Merenzon’s friend announced.
Since being an elite athlete, Merenzon has been trying to do nothing about being an elite athlete. At her high school in Buffalo Grove, Ill., People knew her mainly for her many absences; she missed most of her final semester to compete in Europe. She was able to maintain a degree of stealth in part because her sport, rhythmic gymnastics, is not well known in the United States.
Merenzon’s journey to the Olympics began in her native Ukraine, where sport is much more important and where she first took classes. When she was six, her family moved to the United States and she began training at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center, a gymnasium with a long history of training America’s top rhythmic gymnasts.
In his early teens, at the suggestion of a trainer, Merenzon began competing in the group event, where five athletes perform a dazzling complex and synchronized routine to music. The basics of the individual and group events are the same – athletes use the same five pieces of equipment (hoop, ball, ribbon, rope and clubs) for their acrobatic feats – but for Merenzon, the feeling was different.
“I’m 100% a group gymnast,” Merenzon says. “I don’t like to be alone on the mat. I love having four other girls right next to me knowing they are supporting me all the way.
For members of the 2020 Olympic team, it has been a long road (and ultimately made even longer by the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed the Tokyo games). In a sport long dominated by other countries – Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine – there was no guarantee that the American team would qualify.
Merenzon wasn’t sure whether she was ready to put her life on hold for this slim chance. So in 2017, at age 18, she retired from sports and enrolled in UChicago. She quickly realized that she couldn’t forget rhythmic gymnastics and started training again in the summer after her freshman year, alongside an internship at the American Medical Association. That summer, definitely no vacation involved full eight-hour workdays, followed by three hours of gymnastics training each evening.
The road to Tokyo involved a good place in several international competitions in the years leading up to the games, and a bit of luck. After a complicated series of national musical chairs involving the strong performance of the American women at the world championships, the ranking of Ukraine in the continental championships and the automatic qualification of Japan as the host nation – the rules were just as complex as the Gymnast Routines – Merenzon and his fellow athletes learned in July 2021 that they had done so.
For Merenzon, it was the greatest achievement at the worst time. In April 2021, she injured her foot. “The only thing that would cure her was rest,” she says, exactly what an athlete competing in the Olympics cannot do.
So, although she was part of the squad that allowed the United States to advance, she was sent to Tokyo in July as a substitute. (Still multitasking, she was also working remotely as an intern consultant with UCicago’s East Asia Innovation Challenge.) She pledged to do, “I reached my full potential in sport and reached my ultimate goal. “
Although her injury prevented her from competing, the many doctor’s visits she entailed renewed Merenzon’s bubbling interest in studying medicine. Today, the aspiring doctor is preparing for her next challenge: making it to the 2032 Olympics as a sports doctor.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Do you have a favorite device?
Clubs — bowling pins that look like sticks. There is a lot of variety with them. You can do throws, flips, mills [when the clubs spin in opposite directions].
What is your signature skill?
My best skill is an element called bending, where you bring your leg up 180 degrees and your body goes down, kind of like a T. It can be turned into a balance or a turn.
How many hours did you train in general?
In high school, it was six times a week for four hours. During the summers or when I wasn’t in school, we had double workouts: seven hours a day, with a break in the middle, six times a week.
Are you tired of the music in your routines?
That’s why we choose music that everyone loves and that will not bore us. We usually change music every year because we hear it so often. This year our ballroom routine was Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life”. That was really the message of the year, like it’s now or never. We all loved it. This is a piece we will never get tired of.
How does it feel to have a new competition leotard?
It’s like the birthday gift for a rhythmic gymnast. Every time new leotards arrive everyone gets so excited. You wear thousands of tiny stones that shine all over the place, and it adapts perfectly to your body. You feel like a magical princess of the carpet.
Have you ever hated one of your leotards?
I’m not a big fan of the color orange. In 2013 we had one that was completely orange, which wasn’t my favorite thing. But in a group environment, when you’re not the only one wearing it, it’s significantly better.
Is it hard to keep looking happy after making a mistake in a routine?
This is something we are taught from an early age. My coaches always said you can make mistakes, making mistakes is totally normal, the routines are super tough, but the real athlete is the one who can take that mistake, just go on and on and hit the rest of the routine.
What was the best competitive moment of your career?
The 2019 World Championships, when we hit our second routine. All year, we struggled with our clubs and hoops routine, and did a clean, drip-free routine. While taking this last pose, I got chills in my body that I had never felt before. I saw one of my teammates start to cry and we all held hands and walked over to wave at the end of our routine. This moment is unforgettable.