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Lili Mizuno’s Long Way Up In Rhythmic Gymnastics

Lili Mizuno competes during the individual qualifications at the FIG Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships on Oct. 27, 2021 in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)

It was the sports psychologist who planted the idea in Lili Mizuno’s head, but it was the rhythmic gymnast at her core who ran with it.

The psychologist suggested Mizuno develop a character around each of her four routines, something to give the performances with the hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon added structure and depth, and something for Mizuno to think about as she navigated the glamorous, high-stakes competitions of the pre-Olympic year, which include this week’s world championships in Spain.

“At first I was like, ‘That’s weirrrd,’” Mizuno recalled, elongating the final word. “Like, what? What do you mean make a character? I just have to do my elements in each routine. But just doing your elements and completing your skills isn’t enough to be a successful rhythmic gymnast. You also have to bring in the character and the style and the artistry.

“That’s the other half of the points that you’re getting. Once I realized I had to take it a step further and add a little bit more, that’s when I started adding the characters.”

This is how Mizuno, who had always focused on the practical, technical side of rhythmic — the tosses and catches and pivots and pirouettes that rack up difficulty points — opened her mind to the artistic possibilities encased in her new routines.

To her surprise, ideas flooded in. With the hoop, the reigning U.S. all-around champion imagined herself as a warrior queen, an elegant fighter leading forces into battle. Inspired by the name of the French song she performs to with the ball, she pictured a girl walking away from a toxic situation, fire in her eyes and head held high.

With the clubs, she’s a Spice Girl — but not one of the original Spices.

“I definitely find it easier to relate to characters that are girl bossing — dramatic, leader warrior type of characters, because that’s the type of character you have to be to be in the highly competitive and difficult sport that this is,” Mizuno said. “I would definitely be my own Spice Girl. I have my own style.”

When you step into a character, you feel like a more powerful version of yourself.
Head Shot
Lili Mizuno

Rhythmic gymnastics bursts with the glamour of a Bond film and the elegance of a ballet — and indeed, many a routine is based on “Carmen” or “Swan Lake” — but it can also be cutthroat, with gymnasts deducted for the smallest of imprecisions. An entire page in the code of points is devoted to “individual artistry faults,” including but not limited to “under-developed” body and facial expression, and “insufficient use of the entire floor area.”

The person you’re trying to vanquish on the carpet isn’t an opponent, Mizuno came to realize; it’s always your own self-doubt.

“When you step into a character,” she said, “you feel like a more powerful version of yourself.”

A Different Character Of Gymnast

For years, Mizuno was the odd woman out.

Though she’d been among the top five rhythmic gymnasts in the U.S. since aging into the senior elite category in 2017, Mizuno until 2022 was never first or second or third — the placements needed to secure entry to the sport’s biggest competitions.

Questions nagged at her. Why was she able to do a great routine in practice, yet unable to produce one in competition? Why wasn’t she progressing faster? Was all the effort she was putting in really worth it?

“It just wasn’t matching up,” the 22-year-old recalled. “I didn’t really enjoy competing, just because I was so nervous and shaky, and I would get frustrated because after my routines out there, I would be like, ‘Oh man, I know I could have done so much better.’”

After three consecutive fifth-place finishes at the U.S. Championships from 2017 to 2019, serious doubts set in.

“Even though people were telling me I improved so much, I personally didn’t feel like I was improving, and as a result my love for the sport kind of went downhill,” Mizuno said. “I was always so close. And for me, when I wasn’t really winning or placing or anything, it’s easy to have that voice in your head tell you, ‘Oh, you aren’t really getting any results, why are you still doing this?’”

Things came to a head in 2020. As the pandemic threw the sports world into chaos, the international competition calendar became a desert wasteland, and nobody knew when they would be able to compete again. If Mizuno were to step away from the sport she’d practiced since an artistic gymnastics coach steered her toward it as a child, this was the moment. She hesitated.

Solace came from an unexplored corner of the gym. During the fall, the U.S. rhythmic group, based out of Mizuno’s gym, North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in Prospect Heights, Illinois, lost one of its members, and Mizuno was invited to take her place. Group rhythmic gymnastics, built on collaborations with the apparatus between team members, felt completely different from the individual side of the sport. But the team, which had already qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, was in need.

Let’s see if I still enjoy it, Mizuno thought, and began practicing with the group.

The U.S. rhythmic gymnastics squad poses after the group all-around final during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 08, 2021 in Tokyo. (Photo by Getty Images)

The new challenge invigorated her. Group routines are partly designed around the strengths of individual team members, and Mizuno was pleased and flattered when penché turns, one of her specialties, were integrated into the performance specifically for her. Almost before she knew it, Mizuno, the individual rhythmic gymnast who had never seriously been in contention to make it to the Olympics, was competing at the Games.

“It was a completely different experience than I have now competing as an individual,” she said. “But I would say that I enjoyed competing with the group just as much as I did as an individual. Just walking off that Tokyo stage after you hit a routine is the best feeling in the world. It really made me feel like, wow, I want to go on another stage and have that feeling again.”

Even during the intense period of Olympic preparation, Mizuno kept the possibility of an individual return open. After the U.S. group finished 11th in Tokyo, she returned to training by herself. This time, results came swiftly: she was selected to compete at the world championships in Japan eight weeks after the Games, where she finished in the top 30 with hoop and ribbon.

The next year was even better, culminating with a 12th-place finish in the all-around at the 2022 world championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, among the best placements ever recorded by an American gymnast. Along the way, numerous appearances in world cup apparatus finals helped establish her as a promising contender for Paris 2024. Yet the biggest triumph of all may be what Mizuno calls “bridging the gap between the way I train and the way I compete.”

“At worlds I was actually able to perform the way that I do at training, so I feel that was just breaking that mental barrier that I had,” she said. “I just kind of proved to myself that it is possible for me to perform the way that I want to.”

Where she once focused on problems, now she sees only possibility at this week’s world championships in Valencia, Spain, where the top 14 eligible gymnasts will earn their nations a berth to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Though coming off an ankle sprain that kept her out of the gym for about three months earlier this season, Mizuno is back and charged for the challenge ahead.

With the ribbon, often the final routine a gymnast performs at a competition, Mizuno built a character around a woodland fairy whose forest home catches fire. In a crescendo of an ending, “I just see myself as accepting my fate,” she said.

All that is to say that regardless of how this world championships and this Olympic qualification plays out, Lili Mizuno is not just going to fade away.

“My goal for rhythmic in general is just to continue doing it as long as I still feel the love for the sport,” Mizuno said in an interview late last year. “I don’t really like to think of it in terms of winning a certain competition or getting a certain place or getting a certain medal. I’m kind of doing the sport year by year because I simply enjoy doing it. As long as my body’s able to do it and mentally I still enjoy doing it, and it’s not a chore to be doing it, I’ll continue to do so until I can’t anymore.”

Spoken like the rhythmic girl boss she’s become.