It’s difficult to know where Jenna Zhao would be right now if she hadn’t given up on artistic gymnastics after just one year of lessons as a 5-year-old.
Her parents signed her up for the activity, but opted after that first year for something different, partially out of of concern for injury. Artistic gymnastics, which most people simply refer to as gymnastics, includes shorts routines on different apparatuses.
The next stop for Jenna, who also began taking ballet lessons when she was 5 and continues to do so nine years later, was rhythmic gymnastics. In that sport, female gymnasts perform on a floor with a rope, hoop, ball, clubs or ribbon, accompanied by music.
“The idea of doing some type of gymnastics made sense for me and was something I wanted to do,” said Jenna, now 14 and an eighth grader at Hinsdale Middle School. “I always liked doing cartwheels and was very energetic.”
Switching to rhythmic gymnastics made sense to Jenna, too.
“I think it was way more suitable for me,” she said. “It combines athletics, artistry and gracefulness.”
Jenna said the year she spent with artistic gymnastics was helpful as she began rhythmic gymnastics.
The big change for the Burr Ridge resident took place when she moved her training four years ago to Vitrychenko Academy in Niles, which is owned and operated by Olena Vitrychenko, a 1996 Olympic Bronze Medal winner from the Ukraine, who has been coaching Jenna.
“Things really changed that first year when I moved to the new academy,” Jenna said. “I feel like I don’t even know what happened that year, but I improved a lot and did much better than I expected.”
Vitrychenko said Jenna’s personality is the main reason for her considerable improvement.
“She’s very smart and a good listener,” Vitrychenko said. “She understands what she is told and taught and is able to make corrections.”
A year after the move, Jenna finished first in a national competition, and two years ago she moved to Level 10, the highest attainable. But that didn’t put an end to her hard work, as she knew there was plenty of room for continued improvement.
“Becoming better at that level means that you show more difficult skills and make difficult things look effortless,” she said.
Needing a top 8 finish in 2017 at national competition to be named to the U.S. junior national team for USA Gymnastics, Jenna finished 10th, falling a bit short but still managing an impressive showing.
“I really wasn’t discouraged with that at all,” she said. “I knew I did pretty well, and it motivated me to keep working even harder. It takes a lot of perseverance, time and focus to do well at this.”
Jenna remained focused and continued to improve. She finished fourth at the 2018 national competition to earn a spot on the junior national team.
“I think I looked more mature, and I had a different mindset,” she said.
Along with traveling around the U.S., being part of the national team has also taken Jenna to Canada, Hungary, Portugal and twice to Poland, including a trip there earlier this month.
“It feels really great to have the American flag on my leotard,” Jenna said. “It’s always been a dream to be in the Olympics, and it’s something I may work toward for four years from now.”
Vitrychenko said it’s too early to know how far Jenna can go in rhythmic gymnastics, but hasn’t ruled out anything for her student.
“It’s good to have dreams,” Vitrychenko said. “You never know.”
Jenna has continued taking ballet on Mondays, something she believes helps her improve as a gymnast.
“Adding emotion and expression is part of rhythmic gymnastics, and ballet is really good to move and express yourself with music,” she said.
Jenna said she spends about 3 ½ hours a day, on most days, training, and continues to enjoy it.
“I get frustrated in a lot of practices, but I just try to remember that I’m learning and improving,” she said. “My family and friends are very supportive. The only pressure I feel if from myself.”