Olympians and Paralympians make the most difficult athletic feats look easy. That is never more apparent than with a sport like rhythmic gymnastics. It requires specific skills like spine-bending flexibility, strength and coordination, all balanced with unique elements like poise, grace and choreography. Add in an apparatus like a ribbon, ball, hoop or clubs and there is an additional level of complexity that's unique to this Olympic sport.
Natalie McGiffert got involved in rhythmic gymnastics at age seven by chance. “My mom won raffle tickets for a few free gymnastics classes. The first lesson was used for a level-placement test in artistic gymnastics and that was when the rhythmic coach saw me and my potential,” Natalie said.
For young Natalie, the pretty ribbons were enough to spark her initial interest. From there, it didn’t take long for her to learn that there's much more to it than ribbon twirling. She enthusiastically embarked on her athletic journey, but never alone.
“My dad retired from his career in the film business to take me to practice and around the country to competitions,” Natalie said. When she was offered the chance to train with the U.S. National Team in Illinois, her family went with her.
"We left the decision to move to Natalie and told her that if she wants to try it out then to tell us and we'll figure out how to do it. But you can't ask us. You can't ask your teammates. You can't ask your coach,” said Natalie’s father, David. It took about a week and a half before Natalie made up her mind to pursue the opportunity.
“I used to say it's like a Mars mission,” David explained about the cross-country move. “We’re packing up. We're going to this other place. It's only for a while. We don't know anything about it, but we just know this is what we have to do. This is our mission and it really felt that way.”
The opportunity was part of an experimental project initiated by Caroline Hunt at USA Gymnastics to qualify a complete U.S. rhythmic delegation for the Olympic Games, and it was a success! At the Rio 2016 Games, they became the first U.S. rhythmic gymnastics group to ever qualify for the Olympics [The 1996 team represented the U.S. by obtaining an automatic host country quota spot.]
“I struggled with individual rhythmic because being the center of attention is not my strong point. Being in a group took some of the anxiety of competing away,” Natalie said.
“I was trying to separate who I was from being an athlete. I feel like I found my true Olympic identity from working within the Fellowship,” Natalie said.
Her first six-month Fellowship rotation began with the LA28 Communications department before she rotated to join the Games Planning & Delivery department. Her heart was set on pursuing a career in communications, so she jumped at the chance to join the team full time when a role opened last September. She is now a proud member of the Communications team as an Associate.
“For someone with no professional communications experience prior to joining LA28, Natalie quickly became an incredibly valued player,” said her manager and LA28 Sr. Director of Communications Ashley Dos Santos. “She provides a viewpoint that no one else on our team could possibly have.”
Natalie’s experience at LA28 has helped her figure out who she is beyond an elite athlete and expanded her skill set and identity.
“Growing up and always being the ‘gymnast’ or ‘the girl training for the Olympics’ starts to become so much more than just a characteristic, it becomes your entire identity,” Natalie explained. “Sometimes when people know that about you, they stop getting to know who you really are. I wanted to figure out who I am without that, and my experience at LA28 has helped me do that.”
“Not only is LA28 providing training opportunities to retired Olympians and Paralympians, but we’re also benefitting tremendously from the wealth of experience, knowledge and respect these elite athletes have for the Games, along with their inspiring work ethic that strengthens every team they join” Ashley shared. For Natalie, her favorite thing about being a part of LA28 is how it allows her to help make an impact on the city she lives in. “I see LA in an entirely new light and am more involved than I ever thought I would be in the community,” Natalie said.
"The Fellowship made me realize what being an Olympian is actually about,” Natalie continued. “It's about giving back to the Movement and leaving a long-term, human impact we can all be proud of.”
To watch the interview with Natalie, please visit the LA28 YouTube Channel.