Rebecca Sereda: More Than Just a Gymnast

 
05FD75E8-31BF-4569-8A04-33A3CE8E7126.png
 

Rebecca Sereda is a household name in the world of rhythmic gymnastics, a sport that combines elements of gymnastics, dance, contortion, and manipulation of hand apparatus. She is the 4-time Junior Olympic champion, 6-time US National Champion, and finalist at the 2013 World Championships. Everyone expected her to represent the US at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Tragically, it was an injury that cut her gymnastics career short, before her Olympic dream could be realized. Here is her story.

Rhythmic gymnastics is a vastly popular sport in Eastern Europe, especially in the former Soviet Union. Her mother, originally from Ukraine, was reading a Russian newspaper one day, when she saw a rhythmic gymnastics advertisement and decided to enroll young Rebecca in classes. At 6 years old, Rebecca knew the minute she stepped foot inside Isadora Gymnastics, her home gymnastics club of 13 years, that she had found her true passion. At the time, Rebecca and her family were living in Staten Island, New York. Isadora Gymnastics, located in Brooklyn, was a 45-minute drive away. Regardless, Rebecca’s parents made the commute because they saw how much their daughter loved the sport. At the time she began rhythmic gymnastics, Rebecca was also enrolled in dance classes. 9-months into her sport, she had a dance recital the same day as a gymnastics competition. It was then that Rebecca was forced to choose: dance or gymnastics. She chose the latter. “And thank God I did,” Rebecca says.

Before Rebecca turned 8, tragedy struck. Her mother passed away of cancer. Rebecca’s father was then living in Ukraine. And so, for a while, Rebecca lived with her mother’s best friend. “I used gymnastics as an outlet to get over my mom’s death.” She began to practice more and devote everything she had into her sport. “Gymnastics was my happy place and getaway.”

When Rebecca first started at Isadora, the gymnastics club was run in such a way that there were two separate gyms: one for the beginners, and one for the level 7-10 gymnasts. When Rebecca was in level 6, her head coach, Natalya Kiriyenko, came into the beginners’ gym to watch. Kiriyenko later told Rebecca, “I remember I fell in love with you that day.” Shortly after her mother’s death, Rebecca was taken under the wing of Kiriyenko, who would remain Rebecca’s coach until the end of her career.

When asked whether or not the Olympics was her dream from a young age, Rebecca replies, “[The Olympics] is the goal of every little kid. But it wasn’t until I began to win Junior Olympics and compete internationally that I saw the Olympics as being feasible. I started to really believe in the goal when I was in level 9. By then, I understood the format and qualification process.” While the Olympics was her long-term goal, Rebecca had a lot of small goals along the way, to keep her motivated and on track. “It’s hard to be proud of yourself if you only have one goal to work towards.”

It was important for Rebecca to celebrate these little victories on her long, hard road to the Games. Unlike many gymnasts at her level, who are homeschooled or do online school to have more time for training, Rebecca attended public school her entire life. “I had a lot of absences [from school], but I never decided I needed to be homeschooled. I was good at staying on top of my work. I prioritized gymnastics over school, but I knew I had to do well enough in school because rhythmic gymnastics wasn’t going to be my life forever.” Rebecca did very well in school, taking AP classes and graduating with honors. “I had a big workload in school, so I had to learn to manage my time efficiently. There was a small window between school and gymnastics practice, so I did my homework efficiently [in that gap]. I didn’t touch my phone. Through this, I gained time management skills and a good work ethic.” Mondays were Rebecca’s only day off from the gym. “On Mondays, my teachers gave me homework for the rest of the week, so I tried to get as much done as I could [on Monday] to have a relatively free week.” Between studying and training and competing, Rebecca was left little time for a social life. “I didn’t have a normal social life. A lot of athletes quit because they want a social life. But I don’t regret it; I was never drawn to a social life [at school]. My closest friends are from my sport. Since practice on Fridays ran until 10pm, and Saturday and Sunday mornings were also taken up by training, I wasn’t able to make weekend plans [with school friends]. I wasn’t really close to people in high school, but it didn’t really matter. I came out of it on top because I became independent, and was prepared to take on the challenges of a college student.”

On the rare occasions when she had free time, Rebecca enjoyed going shopping in the city with her gymnastics friends. “My gym friends lived in Brooklyn and Queens. I would go to the city to hang out with them. At age 13, we thought we were so cool, going shopping and enjoying our time away from the gym. I truly value my friends a lot.” Rebecca also enjoyed massages and naps. “Mondays I would take naps and go to bed early. I never pulled an all-nighter in my life. I never studied past midnight; my brain just shuts off, then. When I lived in Novogorsk, Russia [for training], I did a lot of reading. I’ve always been a big reader, sometimes reading one book a day, because it relaxes me. I like mystery, realistic fiction, and fantasy. It’s good to have something not associated with either gym or school.”

When asked whether she wished she had more normalcy growing up, Rebecca said, “I didn’t want the normalcy. In the beginning, I was a little upset when I saw friends going to house parties. But I realized that that wasn’t very important. I started competing for USA when I was very young, so it was the only life I really knew. Making the extra hour-long commute to the gym and back was difficult, but that was my normal lifestyle. It was different from those of my peers, but it was my normal.”

So instead of spending her nights partying and drinking with school friends, Rebecca was either training, traveling the world for competitions, or hanging out with her teammates, many of whom remain her closest friends to date. “I loved the special bond you create with people in the sport. Rhythmic is an interesting sport—it is competed individually. To this day, though, I consider my rhythmic gymnastics friends my closest friends in my life. I have over 15 years of friendship with some people! So even though we were direct competitors, we were still such good friends.”

Romantic relationships for the student-athlete prodigy was out of the question. “I told myself that I didn’t want any distractions. In high school I was super involved in gymnastics. I saw how friends had relationships, and how upset that would get over break-ups. I would never want to break up before a big competition. It was only when I stopped gymnastics that I started dating and being a normal person.”

During the last years of her junior career and into her senior career, Rebecca’s typical training schedule was as follows: Go to school at 7:10am and get out at 1:45pm, with no lunch period. Go home, then head to the gym for a minimum of 5-hour practices every day of the week except Monday. Saturday was double practice: 4 hours in the morning, and 3 hours in the afternoon. During the last two years of her career, Rebecca did a lot of physical therapy, doing 3 hour sessions with her physical therapist and athletic trainer. “By the time my schedule got that hectic, I was driving myself, so my dad didn’t have to.”

 
5ABD6080-7964-4490-8892-4E64E3281F44.jpeg
 

All of Rebecca’s hard work paid off. She quickly moved up the levels, becoming Junior Olympic champion in level 7, both years of level 8, and level 9. She was actually forced to do level 8 twice, because people said she was too young to compete level 9 at that time. National Qualifiers is the competition that determines which level 9 gymnasts can move on to level 10. It is also the competition that determines which athletes make the national team. In 2008, at the age of 12, Rebecca not only made level 10 at Qualifiers; she placed 3rd all around, earning her spot on the USA rhythmic gymnastics national team, and secured her spot for the next 7 years. Her first international competition was at age 10, in Budapest, Hungary. “International competitions can be nerve-wracking. You’re going from competing in college gyms to large-scale arenas, filled with lots of people.” Rebecca also faced the pressure of representing her home country at these international competitions. At age 12, with the weight of the nation resting on her tiny frame, Rebecca learned how to cope with pressure from early on. “I didn’t think too much about it,” she says. Her mantra was, “If I do my job, I should be fine.” With experience, she developed a mental toughness that helped her push through competition nerves. “If I knew I was in good physical shape and was ready, then I was confident.” It was this mental strength that led Rebecca to become the 4-time Junior Olympic Champion, US National Champion from 2009-2014, junior Pan American champion in 2009, and a finalist in many major international competitions. 2012 was her first year as a senior competitor. It was an Olympic year. At that time, fellow US rhythmic gymnast Julie Zetlin was a veteran senior competitor. According to the rules, gymnasts could go to the Olympics in one of two ways: they could qualify for an Olympic spot at Qualifications, which is held the year before the Games; or, if no one from a given continent makes the top 24 to qualify to the Olympics, the Federation is still allowed to send one “wildcard” athlete from their continent who had competed at Qualifiers. In 2011, the year Qualifiers were held, Rebecca was still too young to compete for a spot at the Olympics. Therefore, she was unable to earn a spot in London, with Julie representing the US, instead. The biggest success of her career happened the following season, when she became a finalist at the 2013 World Championships in Kiev, Ukraine, alongside fellow US gymnast Jasmine Kerber. It was the first time in history that two US rhythmic gymnasts qualified for finals at a world championship.

Another highlight of Rebecca’s competitive career was the 2011 World Cup in Pesaro, Italy. Two years earlier, as a junior competitor, Rebecca finished in 4th place all-around at Pesaro, one-tenth of a point away from the bronze. “I told myself that the next time I came back, I wanted the medal. When I went next time, I made all the event finals, earning the silver medal in ball. It was a crazy moment because [during awards], I was standing in between two Russians. Caroline Hunt, [senior director of the USA rhythmic gymnastics program], awarded me my medal. It was an amazing achievement to understand that the US could in fact be at the level of other countries.” Rhythmic gymnastics is a relatively new sport in the US, with gymnasts from Eastern Europe-- particularly the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians-- dominating the sport. But because of athletes like Rebecca, who have achieved so much on the international circuit, the sport has grown tremendously in the US.

The ball apparatus was Rebecca’s signature event. “Ball is my favorite. It’s funny, because my hands are naturally sweaty. When I’m on deck, I use baby wipes like crazy. I used my towel, and my coach would let me wipe my hands on her leg! Ball became my favorite because I won so many awards [with this apparatus].”

Different athletes have different ways of getting into the right headspace before competition. Some athletes don’t like to talk to anyone during warmup. Rebecca was the opposite. For her, socializing was her way of getting relaxed and ready to perform. “Before I got on the carpet, I would tell my coach a story or crack some jokes. Before Worlds, I brought up a story unrelated to gymnastics. If I was laughing, I knew it was a good sign.”

When asked what happens if she makes a mistake or drops her hand apparatus in the middle of her routine, Rebecca replies that she is able to maintain her composure, largely because of her disciplined training methods. “In practice, I always finish my routine, even if I make a mistake [mid-routine]. My coach would not stop the music. So if the same thing happened in competition, I could recover quickly. I block out [the mistake] and allow my body to do more of the work than my head. If you think too much, it can be bad.”

In a sport where even the slightest misplacement of the body can mean the difference between catching your apparatus and having it slip from your hands, the pressure to perform to perfection is sky-high for these young gymnasts who, behind the makeup and rhinestone-covered leotards, are warriors to the core. Rebecca faced a great deal of pressure, especially as the 6-time US national champion. “My coach always used to say, the hardest place to be is first place. In first place, there is no where else to go. When you’re national champion, you don’t want to lose [the title].” For Rebecca, the pressure was not so much to stay in first place, as it was to continue improving and make her routines more exciting and captivating. Rhythmic gymnastics is not just a sport; it is a performance art, where athletes perform their one minute and thirty seconds routine to music of their choice. Gymnasts are judged not only on their execution of the elements, but also on their artistry and expression. Thus, it was important for Rebecca to not only deliver routines with flawless technique, but also to create pieces that would resonate with the crowd and judges.

When asked whether she ever saw sports psychologists during her competitive years to help cope with the tremendous pressure, Rebecca replies that she did not. “When I started gymnastics, the Federation didn’t have sports psychologists. I never really had issues competing. The past two years, Team USA has taken on two amazing sports psychologists who travel to elite squad and national team camps. They do training sessions and talk to parents and athletes. The recent 4 years have really pushed for psychologists, and I’ve seen a lot of athletes for whom it’s benefited. Especially with social media nowadays, it’s hard for athletes to stay focused. In my personal experience, I never really had to speak to a sports psychologist, because I never really grew up with one.”

Psychologically, rhythmic gymnasts face many challenges. One such challenge is that of body image, which, in aesthetic sports like rhythmic gymnastics, is a really big deal. When asked about her thoughts on this topic, Rebecca replies, “The fact is, body image is going to be a part of the sport for a very long time. If you compare gymnasts now to gymnasts from the 70s, we are a lot more muscular than gymnasts back then. Still, there is pressure to look a certain way, in this sport. I’m grateful because in my household, my family was very healthy. We had homecooked meals and freshly bought food. I was raised on a good diet and healthy lifestyle, even before I became super serious in the sport. Once you get older and puberty hits, that’s the point when most athletes gain weight. Up until age 16, I never had a single word said to me, [regarding my weight]. Every gymnast gains weight differently; I was on the better end of the stick and gained weight only towards the end of my career. If my friends wanted to go out to eat late night food, I knew I couldn’t do it. I asked myself, ‘Am I going to enjoy this food, or not be accepted at national team camp?’ There were days when I wasn’t allowed to eat dinner. My diet consisted of veggies, boiled chicken, and fish. I had a lot of salad and protein. I always ate enough to get through practice. I did have a scale in my room and weighed myself every morning, but I was never anorexic. Maintaining your weight is just a part of being a high level gymnast.”  

Another challenge within the sport is that of coaching abuse. Many rhythmic gymnastics coaches in the US come from Eastern Europe, where yelling and punishment are the predominant methods of training athletes. Past a certain line, such behavior constitutes abuse. When asked for her thoughts on coaching abuse, Rebecca says, “I don’t think it’s okay or necessary. The coach has to understand that they are molding these young girls. So much of my discipline and character came from how I was trained in the gym. There is a fine line between being rational and being abusive. Practicality is key. You have to be critiqued by your coach, because it’s their job to make you better. How they choose to critique you is important, though. Physical abuse is absolutely unnecessary. If my coach is throwing my club at me, I won’t get better. There is nothing worse than poor communication between athlete and coach, and abuse destroys that [communication].” She adds that abuse in the US is not nearly as bad as it is in Russia. “In the US, [gymnasts] go home to their parents, and tell their parents about what goes on in the gym. If parents don’t agree, they will argue with the coach. In Russia, athletes live in dorms, [without parents]. So there’s more regulation in the US, and coaches are less abusive.”

When asked about the difference between a strict and abusive coach, Rebecca replies, “A strict coach makes her decisions logically. Anyone who is abusive isn’t thinking practically, and is coaching on their emotions. If we were to train based on emotions, it would be a disaster! [Coaches] need to have a concrete explanation for their decisions. If the coach explains her reasoning, and if she yells at you for that reason, then it’s okay. There were days when I didn’t want to do a million ribbon routines, but I still had to, because the plan was for me to do a clean routine, and I had not done one yet. Yeah, it sucks, but [the coach] is right. And it’s important for coaches to notice the good and not always the bad.”

How a coach treats their gymnast also depends on the gymnast herself. “It’s important for coaches to address different styles,” says Rebecca. “What might work for one girl might not work for another; some gymnasts need to get angry before [competing]. That never worked for me. If I get yelled at, it messed me up.” Rebecca adds, “Coaches get frustrated because they spend a lot of time with us, oftentimes more time than they spend with their own families. They want to see results, and athletes want the same thing. Those minute and thirty seconds on the carpet reflect thousands of hours of training.” Thankfully, the culture of coaching in the US is changing. “A lot of coaches aren’t that way anymore,” says Rebecca, with regards to coaching abuse. “We now have sports psychologists educating coaches that [irrational punishment] is not the right approach.”

As for her own relationship with her coach, Rebecca says, “My coach and I have a great  relationship. She calls me ‘Becusya’, which is the Russian word for ‘gem’. We still talk to this day-- actually, we talked a few hours before this interview! She never yelled at me about mistakes, because mistakes happen; she would instead critique the recovery, and whether or not you gave up.”  

 
51D7D08A-9F4C-4DB7-A785-B2B82FF1AED5.jpeg
 

Many athletes are their own worst critic. Moreover, many are trained with a “no pain no gain” mentality. When asked whether she agreed with this kind of mindset, Rebecca says, “I don’t like ‘no pain or no gain’. When you are devoting so much to your sport, there’s inherently going to be a lot of physical and mental pain. But it’s important to train smartly and understand your body and its limits, while being efficient. I don’t think it’s necessary to have to endure so much pain to emerge on top. The ultimate goal is to have a set plan for your routine and practice. Not with an ‘I didn’t sweat enough’ or ‘my body isn’t sore enough today’ mindset. Set logical goals and work smartly and efficiently. And understand when your body needs to rest.”

Towards the end of her highly decorated career, Rebecca faced a debilitating back injury that really tested her ability to be efficient with her training, without damaging her body too much. “My practices were a lot shorter. We had a plan that worked well, and as a result I got out of the gym faster because I didn’t need the extra time.”

Rebecca’s back injury began in 2012, when she began to experience pain during practice. It started out as a single herniated disk in her L4/L5 vertebrae. The condition was genetic, but had to be triggered by external events to manifest. In Rebecca’s case, the trigger was gymnastics. “At first, I thought it was a little soreness. I was still practicing full out thinking it was nothing. Eventually, I started feeling pain down to my right leg. There were times when I had to do my routines without feeling in my leg. My L4 and L5 started deteriorating, and my body had to compensate, because of that. It hurt to jump and arch [my back], which was basically everything. So I started adjusting my routines as much as I could, but even then there were practices when I would come in, my back would ‘lock’, and I couldn’t move.” Rebecca continued competing through her injury, but it certainly was not easy. “The annual Rhythmic Challenge in Colorado determines which competitions you go to internationally. In 2013, when the competition came, my joints locked in the middle of my clubs routine. It was a terrible routine. When I headed backstage after competing, I just collapsed to the floor and couldn’t move. People had to carry me out of the venue, and I had to scratch from the competition. That’s when we realized how intense the injury was.” The Rhythmic Challenge was in February. Rebecca was forced to sit out all international competitions between February and May of 2013. She still went to practice, even when she couldn’t move. “I would continue to practice, even if it was just doing spirals with my ribbon. I did physical therapy and acupuncture, and refrained from doing my routines full out in the gym.”  2013 was the first year Rebecca was eligible to compete at the world championships. After sitting out most of the season, Rebecca competed at a local competition, Spring Fling in Ohio, where she marked all her jumps. She did one international competition, a World Cup in France. Then it was US Nationals, of which the 1st and 2nd place gymnasts would earn a spot to the World Championships. Rebecca managed to defend her national champion title, securing her spot to Worlds. At Worlds, despite being injured, Rebecca pulled through and made the event finals for USA. “[Making the finals] helped me stay motivated.”

After Worlds, the injury worsened, and eventually took a toll on her body. “There were days when I would just collapse at home. Sometimes I couldn’t drive home from practice. The last year [of my career] was tough. I still don’t know how I did all those competitions the way I did. Sometimes it was during competition that I did my first full-out routine. In the past, I would come to competitions knowing I was prepared. Now, I competed only based on mental capacity. I’d compete with no feeling in my leg. I’d smile to the judges and no one would know. It was a roller coaster. I wanted to practice and be in the gym, and I would get so upset because other gymnasts would practice, and I couldn’t. My dad would see me coming home barely moving, and ask me, ‘Why do you need this?’ Rhythmic gymnastics was my true passion. When you’re so passionate about something, any pain you have doesn’t sum up to the love. I was so obsessed with the sport, and came so far already, I couldn’t imagine not continuing.” While her passion burned bright, that alone was not enough to prevent the injury from worsening and affecting her performance. “People noticed that my performances were starting to decline. I kept removing elements that hurt. But at my level, I can’t not be doing the highest point elements.” Rebecca traveled all across the nation to seek medical treatment. “I had the most amazing medical team. I became so close to my physical therapist that I was invited to her wedding! Everyone was trying to figure out something that would work.”  Rebecca and her medical team persisted in trying to find a solution, but to no avail. “At one point I was at home, and I was coming downstairs, carrying a bowl. I lost feeling in my leg, and my leg gave out. I fell and threw the bowl in the air, and it shattered on the ground. I was just laying there. My dad said, ‘You can’t do this anymore.’” Even Rebecca’s coach agreed. “[One day at practice] she said, ‘Let’s go on a walk.’ I had come to practice with my gym stuff like a crazy person. But my coach said, ‘Listen. I think you should do one more MRI, but for now I don’t think you should practice.’ We were both in tears. It was the first time in years that it was said out loud that I couldn’t practice. It was the hardest thing to hear.” Rebecca stopped training in December of 2014. “It was really hard because I graduated high school in June of 2014. I was really excited to not have school and only do gymnastics. In high school, I didn’t apply to colleges, as I was aiming for the Olympics. Now, here I was, not practicing and not in school anymore. I asked myself, ‘What do I do now?’ I went from having the busiest schedule to doing nothing.”

When Rebecca went for another MRI, the doctors found more issues with her spine. In addition, problems were found in her neck and hips, as they had been compensating for her back. Treatment after futile treatment ensued, until finally, Rebecca’s doctors staged an intervention. “We were standing inside the doctor’s office, when the doctor said that there was nothing else they could do for me. This was the end. There were tears in the doctor’s eyes.” The news was devastating.

On April 30, 2015, Rebecca officially announced her official retirement from the sport. In a heartfelt Instagram post, she wrote: “This is probably one of the hardest things I will ever have to write. I have officially sent a letter to USA Gymnastics announcing my retirement from rhythmic gymnastics. I don’t even have the words to describe my 13 year roller coaster with the sport I call my life. Unfortunately this decision was not in my hands. I have been dealing with a serious back injury for over two years already and if I were to continue doing gymnastics my spine and future would have severe consequences. I want everyone to know that I traveled the country, visiting the best doctors and doing countless amounts of procedures to find a solution. Despite months and hours spent at doctors, there is nothing they are able to do to alleviate my pain. Unfortunately I must leave this sport without achieving my ultimate goal of competing at the Olympics and this breaks my heart to pieces. However, when I look back at my career I know I have accomplished so much more than I ever thought imaginable. From being four time Junior Olympic champion, to six time national champion, to winning Pan American Championships and to competing at an infinite amount of world cups, I know my rhythmic career has been successful. I am very lucky to say that I have been a World Championship finalist which is the second highest rank competition after the Olympics. I, however, cannot fathom how much this breaks my heart because I loved practicing, I loved competing and I loved everyone I met and had a chance to work with. This retirement is just my goodbye from seeing my presence on the competition floor. However, it is not my goodbye from this sport because I could never let this beautiful sport go. I would personally like to thank the USA Gymnastics Federation for allowing me to represent the nation at the highest international competitions. I would love to thank my coaches and my team, Isadora. Without them, I would not be the person I am today. I would like to thank all the coaches I have worked with and all the competitors I have met because without you I would not have strived to succeed. Letting go of this sport and no longer being able to call myself an athlete makes me very upset but I know if I were to continue my health would decline. Therefore I have to make the sacrifice of retiring from my sport and stepping down from my position as national champion. Words cannot describe the love I have for this sport and words cannot describe the sadness filled inside of me as I write this. This decision is one of the hardest choices in my life and I want everyone to know that. Thank you to everyone who believed in me and I’m sorry for letting you down and not being able to further my gymnastics career.”

 
CF445F47-C217-4C27-966B-C25E1AC879B1.jpeg
 

Rebecca received numerous messages of condolences and support from fans and members of the rhythmic gymnastics’ community worldwide.

“When I found out [I had to retire], I was a mess for a very, very long time. [Between December 2014 and April 2015], there was a four-and-a-half-month period where nobody knew what had happened to me. I wasn’t competing anymore. I wasn’t showing face. But it didn’t really feel real until I announced it. Once I announced [my retirement], it really hit hard. I thought I had accepted [the injury], but I really didn’t. As happy as I was for the girls who qualified for the Olympics, it was still hard to watch.”  

After announcing her retirement, Rebecca faced a long road ahead of recovery—not just physically, but on every human level possible. “I didn’t sleep for weeks because [gymnastics] was my whole life. Nothing was worse than the fact that you didn’t get to end on your own terms. Everyone wants to end when they want to end. [The injury] broke me. It broke my coach. I retired from gymnastics, but still had injuries to deal with. I wasn’t sure where my life was headed, and didn’t expect to have to think about it so soon. I was the firstborn American in my family, so my dad didn’t have much experience with this. I had to figure out [my future] on my own.”

In the time between stopping training and retiring from the sport, Rebecca decided to apply to some colleges with application deadlines of March 30th. “During senior year of high school, I was always travelling, and even though I had friends who applied to college, I wasn’t familiar with the whole process. I only had time to apply to 5 schools, and honestly didn’t know if I was even going to college.”

Once the acceptance letters started rolling in, Rebecca had a better idea of the future ahead of her. “I started hanging out [with friends] and occupying myself, but I was always thinking about gymnastics. If anyone brought it up, I would tear up. And I don’t cry very easily.”

Ultimately, Rebecca chose to attend Boston University. She had been debating between staying in New York or moving to Boston. “Everyone wanted me to stay in New York to coach. I felt so suffocated by everyone. So I decided to go to BU. A lot of people were upset by my decision, since there were many people relying on me. I just told myself, ‘You know what, I’m moving.’ It was the best decision I made because I was able to start a new life.”

The transition from elite gymnast to college student was not an easy one. Academically, Rebecca was pushed more than she had ever been. “My high school career wasn’t traditional. I was absent a lot. It was definitely not at the caliber of what a freshman biology major would expect. Plus, I took a full year off after high school because of the Olympics.” Rebecca found herself in a completely new city filled with new people and living a totally different life than she had her first 19 years. It took a her a little while to warm up to her new situation. “I hated it at first. I didn’t want to be [in college]. I was studying all the time.” Indeed, there were a lot of differences between her life as a gymnast, and her new role as a full-time university student. “I was so used to the fact that in gymnastics, your outcome is reflective of the work you put in. Nothing was worst than me studying for all those hours and not doing as well as I expected, in those freshman weeder courses.” Another challenge Rebecca faced was that of weight gain. “The second I stopped gymnastics I started eating more, and I gained weight. For an average person, I looked normal. But in my mind, I was so fat.” Watching her fellow teammates compete at international competitions, while she was stuck studying all the time, was also hard. “I remember watching Worlds during my first two weeks of college. I was super happy for team USA, but I was sitting there, thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to be there.’”

As time passed, Rebecca was able to formulate a new life. “I just felt like I needed to succeed again and feel accomplished. I forced myself to be good at school. There’s nothing to feel good about when you have no goal or purpose. Academics gave me a new purpose.” Her three years at university were hectic beyond imagine. “I started working, took on an internship, and did research. When I’m busy, I’m the most logical and efficient, and don’t have free time to think about nonsense.” Her experience working in a research lab gave her a better idea of the career she wanted to pursue. “At first I thought I wanted to do premed. I always wanted to do something health related. I wanted to be in a field that gives me purpose.” However, Rebecca’s interests began to gravitate towards science and research, when she realized that doctors were limited in their ability to heal. Doctors were unable to save her mother from cancer. They were not able to heal her back injury. And that fact drove her crazy. Researchers, however, are empowered to find cures for ailments that presently have none. “I liked the idea of pursuing a path that is trying to develop solutions to a lot of questions. Working on projects that can potentially revolutionize the way we treat patients motivates me every day.”

Moreover, working in a lab reminded Rebecca much of her days as a gymnast. “Doing research gave me the same feeling as rhythmic. I come in every day, put in the hours, and some things wouldn’t work. I did gymnastics most my life, so I’m used to things not working. I had short term goals, I had long term goals. I like being challenged and pushed academically.” Laughing, she says, “I know, I’m comparing rhythmic to molecular biology.” Rebecca started falling in love with research. “I was spending way more time in the lab than I was supposed to.” Research was ultimately Rebecca’s first step towards gaining closure from losing gymnastics.

In terms of finding a new identity beyond that of a gymnast, Rebecca says, “Since elementary to high school, I was known as ‘Rebecca the gymnast’. In college, no one knew I was a gymnast. When I started adding people on Facebook, they were like, ‘Why are you certified [on social media]? Why didn’t you say anything?’ I will always identify with gymnastics. It’s something that has resonated with me for so long. But it wasn’t something I felt the need to portray myself as, [in college]. If someone is curious, I will explain [gymnastics] to them. But recently I’ve begun to transition more into a role in science and pursuing my PhD.”

In 2018, Rebecca graduated from Boston University with a degree in molecular biology—only three years after leaving gymnastics. Her peers would ask her, “How did you manage to graduate in three years?” Rebecca would reply, “I was a gymnast. This is nothing!”

 
38595202-E25A-477D-AFAC-438FD103DB9F.jpeg
 

She is currently working full time under a two-year contract at a Harvard stem cell and regenerative biology lab, doing cardiology research. During her interview for the Harvard lab position, the interviewers told her that when her resume came, they really wanted her on the team because of her athletic background. “They wanted someone who’s efficient, good with time management, and really precise. In science, the difference of one microliter can make an experiment go really wrong. So [when they accepted me] they really placed emphasis on gymnastics.”  

She is looking to begin her PhD in fall of 2020 and is applying to programs this summer.

When asked whether her life now is a lot less stressful than her life as a gymnast, Rebecca replies, “The pressure I had during gymnastics was how much pressure I decided to give myself. And I do give myself a lot of pressure to do well in school, because I always try to do my best. My job is very academic, and there are competitors from different labs. But I don’t have the added physical training, emotional heartache, and having to deal with injuries. So my life is less stressful in that aspect.”

As for gaining closure from her sport, Rebecca says that it was only this past October that she had finally come to terms with her past life. She had been very close with her coach, Natasha, and they shared a vision of going to the Olympics together. When that dream was not realized, Rebecca’s coach told her, “I’ll find a way to get you to the Olympics in any way possible.” At that time, Elizabeth Kapitonova, an up-and-coming gymnast from Isadora, was making her way up the competitive ranks. “Natasha told me to come back to New York more often to coach Elizabeth and go to international competitions with her.” When Elizabeth qualified for a spot at the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina this past year, Natasha wanted Rebecca to go with Elizabeth, as her coach.

 
91C5CFAB-8E3B-4F51-B7AF-90C6996227CF.jpg
 

After the Games were over, Rebecca finally found peace. “I gained a feeling of closure. I wanted [the Olympics], and I realized that I did it, I got it in some form. I also realized that there is more to life than [gymnastics]. It was a two-and-a-half week trip, and I found myself missing my job back home.”

Rebecca is still highly involved in the world of rhythmic. “I coached, I am the USA athlete representative for rhythmic gymnastics, and I am certified as a brevet international judge.” However, she has concluded that nothing-- not coaching, judging, or being an athlete representative-- can quite replace the feeling of being out there on the competitive carpet, doing what she loved. “I realized that part of my life is over.”

 
9201BB07-2D3B-4B95-A241-46A3A564907D.jpeg
 

While limited in the types of workouts she can do, Rebecca still enjoys physical activity, like yoga and boxing. When asked if she still keeps up her rhythmic gymnastics skills, she says, “When I come into the gym, I’ll pick up an apparatus and start working with it, and it’s like I had never left. I also find myself randomly stretching my toes.”

Rebecca has a younger sister who is turning 9 years old in February. She followed in her big sister’s footsteps and is also doing rhythmic gymnastics. Rebecca had reservations about having her younger sister in the sport. “I don’t want her to feel like she’s being compared to me. It’s difficult for her because she doesn’t love it, but she still does it. Sometimes she says to me, ‘Well you were always getting first place,’ and I feel bad.” But her younger sister is also engaged in other activities, like playing piano and drawing. “She’s definitely very artsy,” says Rebecca.

Rebecca says that if she has children, she would absolutely enroll them in sports. “Sports instills discipline and character and hones skills that no other life situation can give. I’d enroll them in multiple sports, not necessarily just rhythmic, and see where the talent goes.” She jokes, “Maybe I’ll put [my kid] in a sport that can actually get her a college scholarship.”

When asked what the biggest piece of advice she could give to aspiring Olympians would be, Rebecca says, “I would say that I wouldn’t ever just have one goal in your career and have that goal be the Olympics. The best way to go about being an athlete is to have small goals that you can achieve in an easier way, because it keeps you motivated and logical. The Olympics are ultimately 6 minutes of routines. You don’t want to sum up your entire career into 6 minutes, especially if it doesn’t work out. There are so many more beautiful moments in those hundreds of thousands of hours spent in the sport.”

So what was the secret to Rebecca’s success in gymnastics? “Hard work. I was not the most talented in the beginner group. I worked extremely hard because I was extremely passionate. I’d go home at the end of the day and practice more in the basement. If you love it, then there’s an internal drive that pushes you to do the best. [Gymnastics] became my obsession and passion. A lot of times, people get distracted easily. The key thing is, when you’re in the gym, you’re there to practice. I tell myself, ‘I’m here to do gymnastics, not to do anything else.’ Having that mentality makes you efficient. The key to my success is hard work and a positive attitude. My coach and I had an amazing relationship because of my work ethic. You also need to have a fighter ability. You can work really hard at the gym, but it ultimately comes down to how you compete. You have to be able to pull out an inner force that makes you fight.”

Rebecca is immensely grateful for those who have supported her all throughout her 13-year career. “My biggest supporters were my coaches. I was really close with all the coaches in the gym—Natasha, Irina, and Shayna. Natasha always held me [on deck at competitions], but it was teamwork. I was their child, and they gave me love and shelter.” She is also thankful for her dad, who, after moving to the States when she was 11, drove her to practice and traveled with her to competitions. “Whenever I see people from the gymnastics community, they’re always asking about my dad, and I’m just like, ‘How do you even know him?’” She also appreciates the rest of her Isadora family, as well as judges and coaches from other gyms who have supported her and watched her grow, from the very beginning.

 
38AEEB9A-2A4D-4C88-8C38-51B61124C367.jpeg
 

It was because she had so many supporters that Rebecca felt she had let a lot of people down, when she had to retire from the sport. “I had started off my career with a lot of success. 9 years is a long time for people to follow your success. I spent so much time in the fame and spotlight and was constantly staying on top. Once I wasn’t able to produce the results I wanted and was expected to have, I felt like I was letting people down. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t get to go to the Olympics. It was that I couldn’t produce what was needed of me.”

When asked how she dealt with all the media and publicity, Rebecca says, “I did like the spotlight. In the rhythmic community, all the judges and coaches enjoyed my presence. I was very social and liked to have conversations. I had the opportunity to make an image for myself. I tried to be a good teammate and a good competitor, because everyone knew my name, and everyone was always looking. I never wanted to have people say anything bad, which in itself was a lot of pressure. But I personally enjoyed it because people care about you and respect the work you are doing. On the rough days, I have all those people who care so much about me, I didn’t want to let anyone down. The rhythmic community is not that large, so I had the opportunity to know about a lot of people. They became a family to me. Everyone—even the staff and coaches from different gyms—was family.”

Looking back, Rebecca asks herself all the time, “Wow, how did I do all that, [as a gymnast]? How did I think any of this was normal? I look back, and it’s crazy. It was a lot to take in and a lot to experience in such a short amount of time. There were a lot of things I had to overcome, and because of that, I became really mature at a young age.”

If she could do it over again, Rebecca, without hesitation, says that she would choose a life in rhythmic gymnastics. “Despite me having lifelong injuries, I would absolutely redo it. I’ve experienced so much, traveled the world, made best friends whom I couldn’t find elsewhere. Rhythmic was my passion, and it still is my passion. It was a special kind of love for something inanimate. If I could change my outcome, then maybe I would. But I would definitely choose my sport all over again.”

Rebecca Sereda has been one of my greatest gymnastics idols since I began rhythmic gymnastics, all those years ago. It was a dream come true to be able to finally talk with her and hear her story firsthand. How she was able to overcome adversity after adversity is truly inspiring and speaks to the strength of her character and size of her heart. Though she was never able to compete at the Olympics, she never let me down. Far from it. If anything, I admire her even more, given all she has been through. Even after gymnastics, she remains an inspiration to me. I truly hope her story can be heard by as many people as possible, because this young woman, only two years older than I, is the strongest person I have ever met.

Fun Facts

Birthday: May 5, 1996

Favorite color(s): yellow; hate pink

Favorite movie(s): “Good Will Hunting”; “Shawshank Redemption”

Kind of music you listen to: alternative indie

Hobbies/passions outside of gymnastics: traveling; yoga; boxing; reading; hanging out with friends

What languages do you speak besides English? Russian; conversational in Spanish

What are some words you’d use to describe yourself?

  • determined

  • caring

  • resilient