© Oleg Naymov

By Jazzy Kerber

At four years old, Evita Griskenas paraded in front of the home video camera, announcing her name, saluting to imaginary judges, and performing her best attempt at rhythmic gymnastics routines. She knew from an early age that she loved to compete.

A few years later, Griskenas participated in her first real competition, and the experience didn’t disappoint.

"I would hold onto [coach] Dani’s arm and jump up and down and be like, ‘Am I going now? How many more people?’" she said of her excitement to compete.

That enthusiasm has paid off. Griskenas, now 20 years old, finished eighth all-around at the most recent World Championships in 2019 – the highest rank of any American athlete at that event. Her result earned the United States one of its two individual rhythmic gymnastics spots for the 2020 Olympics.

Tokyo will mark the culmination of a dream Griskenas has consistently believed in. She visualized her success before she even knew of visualization as a sports training technique. In addition to performing for the camera as a child, she drew pictures of herself standing on the podium winning medals, and she believed in her own ability.

Griskenas’ coach, Natalia Klimouk, agreed that she does well on a big stage.

"Evita is a performer," Klimouk said. But beyond that, she has grown into a "very professional" gymnast.

"She wants to get the job done the right way," Klimouk said. "Even if the practice goes sometimes not very well, she’s never left practice in a bad way. She always finishes the plan, she always wants to finish in the best possible way."

Born to athletic, Eastern European parents, Griskenas found rhythmic gymnastics at an early age. She saw Russian Olympic champion Alina Kabaeva on TV and said, "Mom, I want to do this," she remembered. Fortunately, Evita’s mother knew what rhythmic gymnastics was, but she herself had actually been turned down for gymnastics in Soviet Lithuania because she wasn’t considered naturally skilled for it.

"She did not have good pointed toes, though luckily I got that from my dad," Griskenas said, laughing. Both of Griskenas’ parents were fitness champions in Lithuania (similar to bodybuilding), but Griskenas was drawn to the artistry and performance aspects of rhythmic gymnastics.

When she competes nowadays, though, she has a plan and a mission, too.

"I feel mostly focused," Griskenas said. "I tend to have a strong tunnel vision."

Achieving her Olympic dream has taken focus and planning in other areas of Griskenas’ life as well. She lives about an hour and a half away from North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center, where she trains, so car rides became homework time for many years. In 2019, Griskenas graduated from high school, then took a gap year in order to pursue the Tokyo Olympics. When the Games were postponed and the pandemic forced colleges to move classes online, she kept training in Illinois while enrolling virtually at Columbia University in New York City.

This year’s schedule has been significantly different from usual.

"I kind of felt stuck in the moment," Griskenas said of the start of the pandemic. "I had taken a gap year so I didn’t have any schoolwork to do, and I suddenly didn’t have any practices, I wasn’t traveling, and I was stuck at home. Everyone says, ‘Oh, I wish I could stop time.’ But this sort of became a moment of like, ‘Wow, maybe stopping time for this long is not great.’"

Zoom practices soon occupied parts of her days, though, and virtual physical therapy sessions made the partial break a good time to recover physically. The pandemic also opened up space in the day for hobbies like reading and watercolor painting.

Once Griskenas could return to North Shore Rhythmics’ Deerfield, Illinois gym last summer, Olympic preparation began in full force. In 2021, Evita’s schedule has been to wake up around six, leave the house by seven, practice from eight to 11 or so, then do physical therapy. Afterwards, there’s a break for a few hours. "I’ll go sit at a Starbucks or Panera now that things are open," Griskenas said. Then comes several more hours of training, "And then I will drive home, or I have a host family now that lives closer that’ll sometimes take me in."

In July, Griskenas travelled with her teammates Laura Zeng and the U.S. rhythmic group National Team to the Lake Placid Olympic and Paralympic Training Center for final preparations for Tokyo.

Together, Zeng, Griskenas, and the group make up the largest contingent of rhythmic gymnasts the United States has ever sent to the Olympics. Tokyo marks the first time that the U.S. has qualified to send a rhythmic gymnastics team of the maximum possible size – two individual athletes and one group – to the Games, an exciting sign of progress for the country’s rhythmic program.

Griskenas is thrilled to be a part of this moment.

"The excitement is coming in waves," she said. "I’ll be having a normal day and then all of a sudden, I’ll be like, ‘I’m going to Tokyo!’ And then, another part of me realizes that this is a really big responsibility to myself, to my family, to my country."