© Ricardo Bufolin

Positioned directly in front of the competition carpet at the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, the U.S. rhythmic group sat in the stands of the National Gymnastics Arena and watched Evita Griskenas and Laura Zeng qualify the United States for two individual places at the 2020 Olympic Games for the first time in their lifetimes.

They cried. “We’re so proud of them, because they represent our country, and to have two people qualify for the Olympics, that’s just unbelievable,” said Nicole Sladkov, one of the six members of the U.S. group that trains at North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center near Chicago.

Watching the inspiring performance of Zeng and Griskenas, who train alongside the group, gave Sladkov, Isabelle Connor, Connie Du, Yelyzaveta Merenzon, Elizaveta Pletneva and Kristina Sobolevskaya an extra surge of motivation as they went out to perform their routines with the 5 balls and 3 hoops/2 pairs of clubs during Saturday’s group all-around final in the same arena.

The road that will hopefully continue in Tokyo next summer has been full of detours for the group, whose members have put life on hold to chase a collective Olympic dream. Du and Pletneva relocated from Virginia and New Jersey, respectively, to train in Chicago. Merenzon initially retired from the sport a few years ago but returned for one last chance at the Games. Connor has deferred studying astrophysics at the University of Santa Cruz until after the Olympic adventure comes to an end.

For now, however, all are happy to live and breathe rhythmic gymnastics – and they got a good reminder of why they do what they do in Baku: two hit performances resulted in a 10th-place all-around finish, the best World finish for any U.S. group; the highest ranking of any team from the Americas; and a four-place improvement from their 2018 placement. The Russian Federation won its fourth consecutive team title, followed by Japan and Bulgaria.

“It was so incredible. We were so connected. We were in the zone. There were no doubts in my mind. I completely enjoyed myself out there on the carpet and I think we all did,” Connor said.

The team prepared for the World Championships in Italy, a nation enamored with rhythmic gymnastics, which provided inspiration of a different kind. After difficulties with its routine with the 3 hoops/2 pairs of clubs at last month’s Pan American Games, the group knew they needed to buckle down and find solutions to the details that had been giving them problems. Hitting their first exercise with the 5 balls was thrilling, but they knew they had to stay focused until the very end.

“Throughout our training in Italy before (coming) here, we really worked on getting our second apparatus,” Sobolevskaya recalled. “After we finished the first one (with the 5 balls at Worlds), we knew we could not get too excited, that we had the second one still to do, that we had to stay calmed down for the second event.”

With eight of the 14 Olympic places for rhythmic group now filled, competition for the last six slots will heat up in the spring of 2020. The U.S. group’s best shot at earning one of them will come at May’s Pan American Championships, where a continental place to Tokyo will be bestowed on the top team. To earn that spot, the group will need to finish atop the leaderboard, faced with tough competition from Pan American Games champions Mexico and 2016 Olympians Brazil. Less than a point separated the three in Baku.

More work is ahead, but for today, there’s a chance to relax and reflect on their accomplishments before heading back to the USA, where winter training will begin in earnest.

“We had to focus until the very end,” Sobolevskaya said. “Now, we can celebrate.”