Liza Merenzon, Class of 2023, and her Olympic teammates

Liza Merenzon, Class of 2023 (second from left), served as an alternate for the women's rhythmic gymnastics team at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. (Photo courtesy Liza Merenzon, Class of 2023)

Olympic dreams

Rhythmic gymnast Liza Merenzon, Class of 2023, took a trip to Tokyo before her retirement.

Liza Merenzon, Class of 2023, was at a business club meeting this past fall when she was asked how she had 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.

For as long as she’s been an elite athlete, Merenzon has been trying to not make a thing about being an elite athlete. At her high school in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, people knew her mainly for being gone a lot; she missed most of her final semester to compete in Europe. She’s been able to maintain a degree of stealth in part because her sport, rhythmic gymnastics, is not very well known in the United States.

Merenzon’s path to the Olympics began in her native Ukraine, where the sport is much more prominent and where she first took classes. At six, her family moved to the United States and she began training at North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center—a gym with a long history of training top US rhythmic gymnasts.

In her early teens, at the suggestion of a coach, Merenzon began competing in the group event, where five athletes perform a complex, dazzlingly synchronized routine set to music. The rudiments 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 percent a group gymnast,” Merenzon says. “I don’t love being on the carpet alone. I love having four other girls right beside me, knowing that they’re supporting me along the way.”

For the members of the 2020 Olympic team, the way was long (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 the US team would even qualify.

Merenzon wasn’t sure she was willing to put her life on hold for that slim chance. So in 2017, at age 18, she retired from the sport and enrolled at UChicago. She quickly realized she couldn’t keep her mind off rhythmic gymnastics, and began training again the summer after her first year—alongside an internship at the American Medical Association. That summer decidely-not-vacation involved full eight-hour workdays, followed by three hours of gymnastics training each evening.

The road to Tokyo involved placing well at multiple international competitions in the years leading up to the games, and a little bit of luck. After a complicated round of national musical chairs involving the US women’s strong performance at World Championships, Ukraine’s placement in continental championships, and Japan’s automatic qualification as the host country—the rules were every bit as intricate as the gymnast’s routines—Merenzon and her fellow athletes learned in July 2021 that they had made it.

For Merenzon, it was the greatest achievement at the worst time. In April 2021, she’d injured her foot. “The only thing that would heal it was rest,” she says—exactly what an athlete competing in the Olympic games can’t do.

So, despite having been part of the team that allowed the US to qualify, she was sent to Tokyo in July as an alternate. (Always a multitasker, she was also working remotely as a consulting intern with UChicago’s East Asia Innovation Challenge.) While she didn’t ultimately get to compete on the Olympic stage, Merenzon—now retired for good—takes comfort in knowing she did what she set out to do: “I reached my fullest potential in the sport and got to my ultimate goal.”

Though her injury kept her from competing, the many doctor visits it entailed renewed Merenzon’s simmering interest in studying medicine. Now the aspiring physician is preparing for her next challenge: going to the 2032 Olympics as a sports medicine doctor.

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Questions for Liza Merenzon

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Do you have a favorite apparatus?

Clubs—the baton-looking bowling ball pins. There’s a lot of variety with them. You can do tosses, flips, mills [when the clubs spin in opposite directions].

What’s your signature skill?

My best skill is an element called penché, where you bring your leg up to 180 degrees and your body goes down, kind of like a T. That can be turned into a balance or a turn.

How many hours did you typically train?

In high school it was six times a week for four hours. During the summers or when I was not in school, we’d have double trainings—seven hours a day, with a break in the middle, six times a week.

Did you get sick of the music from your routines?

That is why we pick music that everyone enjoys and we won’t get annoyed at. We usually change our music every year, since we hear it so often. This year the piece for our ball routine was “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi. It truly was the message of the year—like, this is now or never. We all loved it. That’s a piece we will never get sick of.

What is it like to get a new competition leotard?

It’s like the birthday present for a rhythmic gymnast. Whenever new leotards come in, everyone is so excited. You’re wearing thousands of little stones that are shining all over, and it’s perfectly fitted to your body. You feel like a magical princess of the carpet.

Have you ever hated one of your leotards?

I am not a huge fan of the color orange. In 2013 we had one that was just completely orange—not my favorite thing. But in a group environment, when you’re not the only one wearing it, it looks significantly better.

How hard is it to keep looking happy after you make a mistake in a routine?

It’s something we are taught from a young age. My coaches always said you can make mistakes, making mistakes is completely fine, the routines are super difficult, but the true athlete is the one who can take that mistake, continue as if nothing happened, and hit the rest of the routine.

What was the best competition moment of your career?

The 2019 World Championships, when we hit our second routine. That whole year we had been struggling with our clubs and hoops routine, and we did a clean routine, no drops. Hitting that last pose, I got chills through my body that I had never felt before. I saw one of my teammates start to cry and we all held hands and walked forward to wave at the end of our routine. That moment is unforgettable.