By B.C. Manion
When 12-year-old Kristen Ng arrives at a rhythmic gymnastics competition, she has two goals in mind.
One is based on her mother’s advice: “My mom tells me to just have fun.”
The other is a personal aim to improve in every performance.
“I don’t think it’s about competition. It’s about how you think you did,’’ said the Wesley Chapel girl, who just returned from an international competition in Ohio, where she placed first all-around in her level in her age division.
The competition drew more than 350 athletes, representing 47 clubs from 19 states and seven countries, including Ecuador, Ukraine, Belgium, Japan and Canada.
During the event, Ng recalls wiping her sweaty palms on a towel, jumping up and down to settle her nerves and then going onto the floor to give it her all.
“I dance. And the rest is a blur. I melt into the music and smile,” she noted in an email after the event.
“I almost cried on the podium.”
Ng, who attends John Long Middle School, said her motivation is to improve her own skills. She reasons that it’s possible to win even when not performing well because other competitors are not at the top of their game. And, it is possible to lose – despite turning in a personal best – because competitors have superior skill.
So, instead of judging herself against others, she likes to compare herself against her previous achievements.
She’s the first to admit she doesn’t always succeed. There are times when she errs on a skill she performed well in practice.
“It happens to everyone,” Ng said. That doesn’t deter her: “On your next competition, you say, ‘I’m going to nail it.’ ”
She’s willing to work hard, practicing 16 hours a week in four-hour sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Typically, gymnasts at Tampa Bay Rhythmics stretch for an hour then work on their skills, which involve using a rope, a ribbon, a hoop, a ball and clubs.
Typical rope movements include swings, circles, figure-eights, releases, wrapping around a part of the body, tosses and jumps through the rope. The ribbon is attached to a stick and must be kept in motion showing patterns, such as spirals, snakes and figure eights. It also is used in the air and on the floor.
In the ball exercise, gymnasts roll, throw, bounce, catch and trap the ball while trying to make it appear to be an extension of their body. The hoop, similar to a hula hoop, is decorated with tape to match the athlete’s leotard. The hoop can be circled, rolled, spun and tossed. A gymnast can pass over or through the hoop. One typical movement is the “boomerang,” rolling the hoop forward with a snap of the wrist to make it roll back.
Ng’s mom, Angie, makes the trek between Wesley Chapel and Riverview to take her daughter to practices. She has also traveled to meets throughout Florida and in other states.
The sport requires dedication, said Angie Ng, characterizing many moves the gymnasts make as “ER moves.” By that, the nurse practitioner means that ordinary people trying the moves would wind up in the emergency room.
Ng began doing rhythmic gymnasts three years ago, after trying artistic gymnastics and learning she wasn’t a very good tumbler. She likes rhythmic gymnastics because it incorporates dance and involves no tumbling.
She competes for Tampa Bay Rhythmics and is coached by Galina Burns and the gym’s owner, Tyana Marlowe. In her first competition of the year at the Suncoast Sports Festival in January at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Ng placed first all-around in her level in her age division.
Like artistic gymnastics and figure skating, rhythmic gymnasts are judged on their technical skills and artistry.
“They’ll judge you by expression – if you match the music’s mood. If you never smile and your routine is all happy, that could give you a deduction,” said Ng, who prefers performing to upbeat music.
It’s important to connect with judges, too, the 12-year-old said. “You have to make eye contact with the judges and – smile!”