For some students, college can seem like a boring chapter in their lives as they anticipate beginning new careers. However, for Monica and Jenny Rokhman, school is a welcome change after retiring from rhythmic gymnastics.
The twins, who are 20 years old, competed on the American rhythmic gymnastics team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after qualifying at the 2015 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships. While they loved the sport and enjoyed competing in the Olympics, the athletes wanted to turn their attention to preparing for their future careers.
The Rokhman sisters now spend their time attending classes at the University of Illinois, hanging out with friends, participating in various clubs on campus and enjoying a less-structured life. After spending over a decade in the rhythmic gymnastics world, the retired Olympians are embracing their new lives as dedicated students.
Kayla Platoff: When did your interest in rhythmic gymnastics begin?
Monica Rokhman: Our interest started at around 8 years old. We actually started out in artistic gymnastics, but the gym we were in had both artistic and rhythmic gymnastics.
I remember Jenny and I would look over at the other gymnasts and see the ribbons and the hoops and we were really interested. We were also a lot taller and more flexible than the other kids.
Jenny Rokhman: We were instantly drawn to rhythmic gymnastics after we watched an entire practice one day. We approached the coach and we asked what the sport was.
MR: She [the coach] saw that we were a little more meant to be rhythmic gymnasts because of our build and flexibility and she offered us two spots on the rhythmic team, so we officially made the switch from artistic to rhythmic when we were about 7 or 8 years old.
KP: So had you planned on going into gymnastics together or did that happen more by chance?
JR: I think we’ve just always enjoyed doing the same activities, so it just worked out that way.
KP: So would you say that you’re very close?
MR: Yeah, we tend to just like the same activities, and we tend to be good at the same things, so it just happened that we were both good at rhythmic gymnastics and that we ended up wanting to do the same sport.
JR: It’s like that with everything though. Even now we have the same schedules, same classes, same friends. We just enjoy the same things and are always together.
KP: That’s really cool that you’re so close and have been together through it all. What was it like competing at such a young age together?
JR: It was really cool because most kids our age weren’t able to do that. Most kids aren’t able to travel the world like we were able to.
Other kids were at school or had a social life and we were always in the gym training, so being able to represent the U.S. at such a young age is really cool but also demanding at the same time. We weren’t able to really hang out with our friends or go to games or anything like that.
MR: Even at school when people would be doing PE, Jenny and I would turn that into study hour since we were always training and never had time to do our homework. The other kids would wonder why we weren’t playing with them or why we were so busy all the time or why we were missing so much school, and sometimes students maybe didn’t understand what we were doing since the sport was outside of school.
KP: So you trained every day? Can you tell me more about that process?
JR: Before we were even thinking about Rio, we were still in high school, so we would go to the gym right after school and train for about five hours. The year before the Olympics — when we took a gap year between high school and college — we were in the gym from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Our first practice would be between four and five hours, we’d have a small break, then have a second practice for four to five hours. We basically lived in the gym.
MR: During school we would train six days a week and then get a day off on Sunday. When we qualified for Rio we had just graduated high school, so we were able to have those longer practices.
We amped up our practices and trained nonstop. After that we’d stay longer after practices and have physical therapy and icing sessions.
KP: Can you tell me about your experience at the Rio Olympics? What was it like representing your country on that kind of platform?
MR: It was definitely incredible being there, but our team was in the mindset that it was just another competition. Our goal was to just do our two clean routines because we didn’t want to get too into our heads about being there.
We just wanted to do our job. Representing our country was absolutely amazing, and we knew it was our last competition together and our last time competing as a team, so we just wanted to do our best for the last time.
JR: Even being in the Olympic Village and being surrounded by other athletes who understand you and who have gone through all the same things as you to work towards the same goal was great. It was just amazing being surrounded by so many talented people.
KP: That does sound really amazing. Had you decided before going to Rio that you were going to retire? What was your thought process behind that decision?
JR: We knew that we wanted to focus on school afterwards and that we’d need to get careers later on in life. The U.S. isn’t like Russia where, if you’re an Olympic rhythmic gymnast, you’re set for life since it’s not as well known in the U.S., so we were ready to move on.
MR: We definitely knew that we didn’t want to continue after 2016. It was our time to branch out and start a new chapter in our lives. Even at the 2015 World Championships where we qualified, we didn’t know we were going to qualify, so we went into that competition thinking that it might be our last competition.
It was really rough when we qualified and had to train for another year. We were pushing through our injuries and it was already so hard on our bodies, so even if we had wanted to continue, I think mentally and physically we were done at that point.
KP: You mentioned injuries, would you mind elaborating on the toll that practicing and competing so much had on your bodies?
JR: Sure, I don’t mind! Some of my main injuries were, at one point, I had torn both of my patellar tendons — I didn’t tear them completely so I didn’t need surgery, but I was out for six months.
I still had to go to the gym every day and watch my team train and do conditioning for the entire practice, but we all at one point had very severe injuries, so we would sometimes have multiple people out for a while.
Also, towards the end of my career when we were training for Rio, I had multiple stress fractures in my foot. I would show up to competitions in a full boot, take it off, compete and then run and put my boot back on, so it was rough. I just had to push through it though, there was really nothing I could do.
KP: Wow, that sounds really intense! So now that you’re done with competing, what is it like going to school and living a relatively normal life after doing such big things?
MR: Honestly, it’s really nice going to school and not having that pressure every day. When we were training we had a set schedule and were being told what to do 24/7, so it’s great having my own time. Now we’ve joined other activities and we’re able to try new things.
We can try different dance classes or new workouts, and I’m not always afraid I’m going to injure myself or be afraid to try new things and have to think about how new things would affect us in training the next day.
Now we can go out and have fun and hang out with friends. It’s great being able to manage my own time and incorporate new things into my schedule and not always be so restricted.
JR: Exactly, because in gymnastics every action we did was for the sport; we even had to think about how much time we were spending on our phones and things like that. Obviously, it was a really drastic transition from competing to going to school, but we were able to sort of ease into it because after the Olympics we went on the gymnastics tour.
On tour we were able to have a bit of a life, and it wasn’t as strict or demanding, so it made that change easier. But it’s definitely nice to be able to have a life outside of the sport.
KP: Speaking of school, what are you both majoring in?
MR: We’re both in the College of Applied Health Sciences. Jenny’s in kinesiology and I’m in community health.
We chose those majors because we were always traveling and we were always around sports medicine doctors, and we always thought it would be super cool to be able to do what they did because we have had so many injuries and we were in a sport where we were so in tune with our bodies. Since we do know so much about our bodies and since it is what we’ve always known, it just made sense to go into something relating to anatomy and to the body.
KP: What are your plans after graduation?
JR: I was thinking physical therapy, but now I’m thinking about changing my path. I’m preferring to take things day by day and see what’s best for me.
MR: I’m in the same boat as Jenny. I think I’m just going to stick with my major and see where it takes me.
KP: Do you want to do something in the gymnastics world or are you wanting to move on?
JR: Personally, I’m done with the gymnastics world. It’s always going to be a part of me and I’m always going to stay connected with it; I do want to go to Tokyo and watch the teams that qualify. In terms of a future career, I don’t want to do anything related to gymnastics.
MR: During summer breaks we do coach, and I really enjoy coaching and staying involved with gymnastics, but for a living I want to go a different route.
KP: Who would you say is your biggest inspiration, in general or in the sport?
MR: Our family in general is a huge inspiration to us. They sacrificed so much for us to be able to do the sport.
We were living in California when it was suggested by the Federation that it would be a good idea to move to a different gym if we wanted to make the national team, so Jenny and I moved with our dad to Illinois in order to train in Deerfield. This was really hard for my family because my mom was living in California for many years and she would fly every month to see us, so our family was a huge part of this process.
The senior group training in our gym was also a huge inspiration for us in terms of the sport. Not many people know about group gymnastics teams as opposed to individual, and the only group in the U.S. was training at our gym, so we would always watch them train and think they were amazing.
JR: I definitely agree. I had never seen myself as a group member and I was still competing as an individual, but when I was watching the group before us, I was thinking about how it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and they definitely inspired me every single day and their amazing bonds also inspired me.
Our teammates were also a huge inspiration to me as I was competing. I don’t think I would have been able to get through the sport if it weren’t for them. They’re still my best friends and every day they push me to be my best self, and I don’t think I’d be who I am or where I am without them.
MR: Our team inspired me too; we were a really close team.
KP: That’s really cool that you’re still so close to them. Is there anything else that you want people to know about you?
JR: I’d want people to know that we’re just normal people; I feel like people forget that sometimes.
MR: Yeah, I remember we were out one time and this girl who had seen us perform on our tour saw us and she started crying! I was so surprised!
JR: When we were on tour we were surrounded by all these famous people who we looked up to, like Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez, and it was so amazing, but then I remembered that they’re normal people who just happen to be talented.
MR: We also just want people to know that, although we love the sport, we’re enjoying our time to ourselves and having normal lives.
JR: We’re definitely enjoying it and indulging in it!