Rhythmic gymnastics is less well-known than artistic gymnastics, the popular Olympic sport that made athletes like Mary Lou Retton and Shawn Johnson famous. Staten Island native Rebecca Sereda has been a competitor in the sport since her Ukrainian-born parents enrolled her in a class as a child. At 17, she's a member of the US national team, but she won't be going to the Olympics this year — she hasn't competed long enough at the senior level of rhythmic gymnastics to qualify. Just one US rhythmic gymnast, Julie Zetlin, has qualified to go to London this summer, but Sereda hopes to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In between her rigorous six-day-a-week training schedule, she talked to BuzzFeed Shift about what it's like to be part of one of the only women-only Olympic sports.
What's the most misunderstood thing about your sport?
I feel like people think our sport is kind of a joke, that we just dance around with music. That's a very big misunderstanding, because our sport requires so much hard work. It incorporates ballet, gymnastics, and dance, so we have to put all those things together. We train for so many hours, but people think we're just dancing with ribbons on the carpet.
What's the difference between your sport and artistic gymnastics?
Artistic gymnastics requires more full-body strength, a lot of muscle. Our sport relies more on grace and elegance whereas their sport relies mostly on technique. Our sport focuses on things like how you catch your apparatus, and how you artistically perform, which is a big difference too.
How do you train?
I train six days a week, five to six hours a day. Training usually starts with ballet, and moves through strength training and practicing my routines.
I couldn't even count how many times I practice a routine before a competition, especially since we have four events [this year, the four official events are clubs, hoop, ribbon, and ball], so we have to focus on all four. It takes even more time to be consistent in not only one but all four of them.
What's the hardest of the four for you?
Probably the ribbon. For a senior athlete, it has to be six meters long. Controlling an apparatus that's a lot longer than you are is very difficult. It can get tangled, and if you don't have the right technique, it can even tie in a knot. Then you have to untie it, which is a points deduction and breaks up your routine.
Your USA Gymnastics bio says the ball is your favorite event. Why is that?
Rhythmic gymnastics is all about the beauty and grace, and in ball you have to extend your arms and be really graceful. It looks beautiful for the crowd. I love my ball routine — I love the slowness, the gracefulness. It's difficult, but you can make it look very simple.
What's it like being an athlete in one of the few women-only Olympic sports?
Rhythmic gymnastics has always been majority female because it's a very graceful sport. Not that men can't be graceful, but it requires certain elements that men can't physically do very well, like maintaining pointed toes and straight knees. You need flexibility, and that's easier for women.
Men dominate in so many things, and rhythmic gymnastics is one of the few sports that women have to show how good they are. In other sports, like wrestling, women are trying to have the same status as men, but in rhythmic gymnastics it's really all about grace.
There are other countries where men are starting to do rhythmic gymnastics, like Spain. It's very different. But I don't think this country will allow men to do it as a competitive sport. I feel like it's the perfect sport for just women. I feel like it should just stay the way it is.
What's your diet like when you're training? Do you eat anything special?
I always have lots of protein — that's very important. After school, I'll have a meal of chicken or healthy carbs and maybe salad to steel myself for practice, since practice is an hour away from my house. Then i get home at 10 PM, and I don't eat a full meal at night — I'll just have yogurt and fruit.
Do rhythmic gymnasts deal with any of the body image issues you sometimes hear about in dance?
Well, in rhythmic gymnastics you do need skinny legs, and they have to be muscular. You have to have a nice figure. But you don't have to starve yourself, you just have to stay away from unhealthy snacks. As long as you maintain a helathy diet, you won't have a problem.
How is men's rhythmic gymnastics (which isn't in the Olympics or recognized by the official gymnastics governing body, but does have some smaller international competitions) different from women's?
Men are more tight. They do their elements more out of strength, but women do it more for the beauty of it. For men it's hard to develop a high arch and a pointed toe. Sometimes men do their routines with a bent knee, which is a very big deduction.
Is the public profile of rhythmic gymnastics rising?
It's getting more popular, but at a very slow rate. It still doesn't have as much attention as artistic gymnastics. When we take our hoops to the airport, people think they're hula hoops. American rhythmic gymnasts still aren't getting the results the artistic team gets, but if we got more attention we would do better. Hopefully over the years it will get more popular.
Watch Sereda compete in her favorite event, the ball, at the 2011 Rhythmic Challenge: