Alisa Kano got her start in gymnastics after a friend invited her to watch a competition. And then she found happiness in the sport.
"I fell in love," Kano said.
Now 21, Kano has come a long way since she watched that event as a 9-year-old girl. In a few weeks, she'll be on the ground in Rio de Janeiro to compete at her first Olympics.
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"At first, when we qualified, I couldn't believe it. We all couldn't believe it," Kano said. "I mean, it was just a dream come true."
Kano competes in rhythmic gymnastics, a discipline within the sport that doesn't grab the same headlines as artistic — the one that includes the bars, vault, floor exercise, and the balance beam. Rhythmic gymnastics is a magical dance that incorporates ropes, hoops, balls, clubs, and ribbons.
It's similar to figure skating, as the athletes perform spins, jumps, and other moves to music. Aside from the obvious absence of a sheet of frozen water, the main difference is the addition of a few props that move with the athletes as if they're an extension of their body.
"Rhythmic gymnastics … is such a beautiful and unique sport," said Kano, who was born in Tokyo and moved to New York City at age 4. "What makes it different from artistic gymnastics is that gymnasts must show their elements, masteries, artistry, collaborations, and exchanges through special choreography using clubs, balls, ribbons, hoops, and/or ropes.
"It's one of the most mesmerizing sports to watch live and on-screen."
Olympic viewers are usually left with their jaws hanging open after they watch athletes compete in their respective sports because they make things look so easy. Swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, actually resembles some sort of water animal when he's in the pool. Basketball players like Carmelo Anthony showcase their agility and all-around athleticism in front of amazed fans.
Rhythmic gymnastics is no different. Watching Kano and her fellow athletes perform their routines leaves you wondering just exactly how they did that.
Kano's career as a member of the U.S. team has been punctuated by a triple-medal performance at the 2015 Pan American Games, where she and her teammates won a gold (6 clubs + 2 hoops) and two silvers (group all-around and 5 ribbons).
The Rio-bound squad was named after the USA Gymnastics Championships in June and is made up of Kano, Kiana Eide, Natalie McGiffert, Monica Rokhman, and Kristen Shaldybin. 2016 marks just the second time in history the U.S. will have a rhythmic gymnastics contingent at the Olympics. The other time was at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Kano, who moved to Chicago at age 17 for training reasons, said her experience at the Pan Americans last year served as an Olympic preview for her.
"[It] was an incredible experience that is most likely just a glimpse of what the actual Olympics will be," she said. "Our goal is to execute clean routines and show our best work."
Kano has been working on and fine-tuning that execution for more than a decade. Rio will be the culmination of all that work.