NewsRhythmic GymnasticsEvita Griskenas

The Re-Rise Of Rhythmic Gymnast Evita Griskenas

by Blythe Lawrence

Evita Griskenas competes during the women's rhythmic ball at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 1, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Getty Images)

Twelve months ago Evita Griskenas’ cat, an exotic shorthair named Princess Jasmine, stopped walking.


Griskenas wasn’t particularly surprised; Jasmine was 15 and had reached the upper limits of cat life expectancy. She figured the pet, named for her favorite Disney Princess, was probably living her last days. Watching her struggle, Griskenas prayed. If it’s time for her to go, please take her painlessly, she implored, and if it’s not, then let her walk.


“And she stood up and walked,” Griskenas said.


The story isn’t a perfect allusion for Griskenas’ 2023, which included a foot injury that left her too unable to walk but ended with an Olympic berth to the Olympic Games Paris 2024, but the major parallels are there. Small wonder then that when Griskenas broke her foot at the Pan American Championships in Mexico in June, Princess Jasmine was at the forefront of her mind.


“She not only retaught herself how to walk, but she retaught herself how to jump, how to climb. So when I suffered my injury, I kept thinking of my cat, believe it or not,” Griskenas said. “Because she was paralyzed, and she just said, ‘No, I’m not.’”


That was the kind of steely determination Griskenas needed as she jumped through the numerous hoops to obtain the United States’ sole Olympic qualification in rhythmic gymnastics for this summer’s Paris Games. 


In order to even get the chance to compete at the two 2023 Olympic qualifiers — the world championships in Valencia, Spain, and the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile — she first had to obtain certain results at the Pan American Championships in Guadalajara.


Team USA’s highest-achieving rhythmic gymnast for the past several years, Griskenas, of Orland Park, Illinois, traveled to Mexico determined to do well despite foot pain that had grown increasingly painful over the previous weeks, even as she collected a trio of historic medals for Team USA on the FIG World Cup and World Challenge Cup circuits.


“My foot hurt tremendously,” she said. “I’ll be honest: I was not doing anything. I could not even warm up because my foot was bothering me so much. And so basically I did my best to tough it out for three days. The first two days were the most important because they were the qualifications for Valencia and for the Pan American Games, and essentially my result was what helped the USA get two spots there.”


She had done what she had to do. But 10 seconds into her routine on the third and final day, Griskenas landed her first jump and knew her foot was broken. (“When you break it, you know,” she noted.) Somehow she finished the exercise before collapsing into the arms of the team’s physical therapist as soon as she left the field of play.


While competitors from five continents fine-tuned their exercises in the leadup to the world championships, Griskenas lay in bed, unable to walk. She imposed a strict social media ban on herself.


“I was like, for my own mental health I won’t be going on Instagram,” she recalled. “It was a lot of determination and just being like, ‘I know what I want and I know what I have to do to get there.’ My coach likes to say there’s always a solution. You make your circumstances work, but it was incredibly stressful. There were a lot of unknown factors, and with an injury it’s always an estimate. You never know an exact progression or healing process.”

Evita Griskenas competes during the women's individual hoop finals at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 3, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Getty Images)

She arrived in Valencia underprepared and finished 28th, the top U.S. performance but shy of what was needed to qualify for Paris. “I think worlds went really well given the circumstances,” she said. That left the Pan American Games as her best chance at obtaining a ticket to the Games.


Griskenas and Mexico’s Marina Malpica were the most likely candidates for the spot, which would go to the highest eligible all-around finisher. Per the rules, the strong Brazilian gymnasts, who had already achieved a quota for Paris at the world championships, were ineligible to win another place at the Pan American Games.


The upside for Griskenas was that if she managed in Santiago, the place would go to her personally, rather than to the country. After three of four routines in the all-around final, Griskenas led Malpica by a mere 0.1, leaving the ribbon routine to decide who would advance to the Games.


Griskenas stepped up and delivered a career performance with the ribbon to “Modigliani” by Guy Farley. On some level, she had been preparing it since the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, when the French flag was hoisted over the Olympic stadium and something inside her whispered that Paris was part of her destiny.


So in that make-or-break routine, Griskenas displayed every inch of the elegant fierceness she has come to be known for. Malpica, who made a slight mistake in her last routine, narrowly missed out. It had been a turbulent ride, but Griskenas had arrived. She was in tears at the end. So was her longtime coach Natalia Klimouk. So were some of the spectators.


“I had a lot of people who wrote to me that they cried, and I was like — in the nicest way possible — yessss,” she said. “It’s a very emotional routine. You want people to feel that emotion. I’ve been saying that my entire rhythmic career, so it put itself together.”


The coming months will bring monumental changes for the 23-year-old Griskenas: She will graduate from Columbia University with a degree in psychology, then turn her attention to preparing for the Games. After a 12th place finish at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, making the 10-gymnast all-around final would be a bonus in her second turn on the Olympic stage.


After it’s all over, she will watch the American flag raised over the Olympic stadium as the world looks toward the Olympic Games LA 2028, a thought that sparks different but no less determined emotions.


“I would love to continue doing what I love,” is all she says about rhythmic post-Paris. “I am not planning to leave at the moment.”


Right now, it’s about the present. Olympic routine construction is underway — ”I think there will be some storytelling,” Griskenas mused. She is looking forward to having her family in Paris and watching in the crowd, since they have been such a major part of her journey. Even Princess Jasmine has played her part.


“She has been … like this background motivator of mine, because she is so determined,” Griskenas said. “And she was so determined to live the way she had always been living.


“You saw the progress on her relearning how to walk. You saw that it was hard. First she would be tilted sideways and her body would be contorted, and she figured out how to use the wall to support herself. From there she graduated. And she figured that all out on her own.”

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