UChicago student and gymnast fulfills Olympic dreams in Tokyo
Rising third-year Liza Merenzon relishes journey, despite being sidelined by injury
Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.
This was not how Liza Merenzon thought her Olympic journey would end.
As the United States rhythmic gymnastic team completed their routine in an empty arena in Tokyo, the University of Chicago student cheered for her team, nursing a nagging foot injury.
So she watched anxiously on Aug. 7 as her teammates performed their final routine, the result of five years of training and countless hours of practice. She followed along with every detail of the choreography in her head, agonizing over every small mistake and celebrating every perfectly executed move.
“It’s honestly more nerve-wracking to watch than to physically compete,” said Merenzon, a rising third-year in the College. “I knew exactly what a top-notch routine the team could execute, yet I had no control over what would happen on the competition floor. As the last toss was caught and the two-and-a-half minute routine concluded, that’s when the happiness and cheering for my team kicked in.”
Thus ended her long career in the sport, which had begun more than a decade and a half earlier in her native Ukraine—through a career that included dozens of national and international competitions, a temporary retirement and a yearlong postponement of the Games due to COVID-19.
“This journey included so many sacrifices from each member of the team—some moved across the country and many took gap years from college,” she said. “Our lives were put on hold to chase this dream. But sacrifices are made for special moments like these.”
From Ukraine to Buffalo Grove to Hyde Park
Rhythmic gymnastics is a combination of ballet, dance and gymnastics in which competitors manipulate equipment such as balls, hoops, clubs, ribbon and rope in sync with music. Teams and individuals perform choreographed routines designed to display a variety of body movements. The sport is especially popular in Eastern Europe: Russia took home five consecutive Olympic gold medals in the group all-around before winning silver behind Bulgaria this year.
Merenzon was five years old when she discovered the sport at a gym in Ukraine. A year later, her family moved to suburban Buffalo Grove, Illinois, where Merenzon trained at a nearby gymnastics center.
After several years of strong showings in high-level youth competitions, she was added to the U.S. junior national team in 2013. When that team failed to qualify for the 2014 Youth Olympics, many of Merenzon’s teammates retired from rhythmic gymnastics altogether.
She was added to the U.S. national team after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and then began a four-year cycle of competitions with the goal of reaching Tokyo in 2020.
Before her senior year of high school, she toured the University of Chicago, and fell in love with the campus—so much so that, in fall 2017, Merenzon decided to retire from rhythmic gymnastics to concentrate on her studies.
However, watching her gymnastics teammates proved difficult, especially when she knew she was still able to perform. In spring of 2018, she took a leave of absence from the College and re-joined her team. After two years of competing across Europe and North America, the U.S. team qualified for the 2020 Olympics by finishing 10th at the 2019 World Championships.
“Putting my education on hold and renewing the struggle was a hard decision,” Merenzon said. “Coming back to the sport, it was difficult to regain all the skills, both physically and mentally, that I had lost. And that's why it's so special to me that it was ultimately worth it, since we achieved our goal of reaching the Olympics.”
But when the Olympics were postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of Merenzon’s teammates dropped out entirely. Even as in-person training resumed last summer, the possibility of a complete cancellation made finding motivation a challenge.
“None of us knew the future of this team or the future of the Olympics,” she said. “Everything was so up in the air that it took a lot of support from our coaches. But we knew we had to stick together. I had made so many sacrifices already, so I had to do everything I could to make this worthwhile.”
An abrupt end
Earlier this year, Merenzon began feeling pain in her foot during training. Orthopedic surgeons injected her ankle with cortisone in an effort to reduce the pain, but as the Olympics neared, she knew she was running out of time to heal.
She did her best to practice with a taped-up foot, but with the team training for six hours daily, it was difficult to decrease the inflammation in her joints.
When the team arrived in Tokyo, Merenzon realized she would not have the chance to step on the competition carpet. She is still processing the abrupt end to an arduous career.
“The reflection process for me has been coming in bits and pieces,” Merenzon said. “But what I know for sure is that my journey in this sport goes so much beyond the physical experiences I had.”
As Merenzon watched, her teammates made history: 11th place in the group all-around qualification round, a record finish for an American team in an Olympic field of the top 14 countries. Emotions ran high after the final performance—pride for what they’d accomplished after five years together, but sadness that their run had ended.
Resuming an old journey
Merenzon had re-enrolled in the College virtually in Spring Quarter 2020, resuming her studies once the timing of the Olympics became uncertain. She continued taking remote classes through the Autumn and Winter Quarters before taking another leave of absence this past spring to focus on international competitions.
In the fall, she plans to be on campus full-time for the first time in over three years and resume her major in economics. She also plans to re-join UChicago Maya, a student contemporary dance group she had participated in as a first-year student.
Looking back on her Olympic journey, Merenzon is thankful for the opportunities that gymnastics has provided her.
“This sport has made me the person I am,” she said. “It has taught me the true definition of dedication and hard work. I'm someone that has never had natural talent in the sport. My accomplishments have come from never giving up, especially when there were hard moments and injuries. That’s what I'm most proud of.”