U.S. rhythmic gymnast Serena Lu is trying to do something she really hasn’t seen done before: return to her sport after five years away.
Her second turn in the sport has her pushing against the norm, and the pressure she says she’s felt to always be looking forward, pushing quickly to the next item on life’s check-list.
“I think on a greater societal landscape, there's a rush to get to the next part of your life,” said Lu, 24, in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com, “and there's a certain, quote unquote, age limit and obsession with youth that one hand, pushes people to kind of go after things proactively and really work to put down the stones, which are really helpful for things in their future, in their careers. But at the same time, I felt and I feel still continuously that it rushes you to the next phase of your life.”
The first part of her journey in rhythmic gymnastics took her to the highest levels: she was part of the U.S. team at the 2014 and 2015 Worlds, and Lu finished third at the U.S. Olympic trials in 2016. But the U.S. only had one spot to the Rio Games that went to trials champion Laura Zeng, Team USA’s most successful rhythmic gymnast in the sport.
After missing out on Rio 2016, Lu continued in the sport. She finished sixth in the all-around at the 2017 U.S. championships, then went on to compete at the University Games later in the year. She nearly reached the podium there, finishing fourth with both ball and ribbon.
A sudden departure
But, when she got home from that event in Taiwan, she surprised herself.
“It came as a sudden realisation, which kind of shocked me, like a couple of weeks after returning just being like… ‘I'm a little bit burnt out’ and that kind of felt like the end just because I don't think anyone really voiced it out that it's okay to take a break or like that this can be something that you return to,” said Lu. “It was just kind of like, ‘Oh, you are taking a break from training, which means you're never training again.’”
In her own words, she went from 100 to zero.
“I realised on some level that I needed space away from the sport to kind of clear my head. I think because I knew on some level that I wasn't quite done with it and going back just reminded me that I wasn't finished,” she said.
So, she headed off to Princeton University, but even stopping by the gym around holidays remained difficult.
“The first couple times I went back, which were spread out over the years, were always just like, I couldn't really get through the door without starting to cry, which was bizarre to me,” said Lu. “I'm like, ‘Why am I still so emotional about coming back to this gym that arguably was not always a positive experience?’ I remember having really hard and really bad trainings and really stressful trainings, but for some reason, I just couldn’t help myself every single time I'd come in.”
In her junior year, she inched back closer to the sport, visiting the gym more often, helping to coach here and there and as an athlete representative with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
2020 offers time to re-think
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lu says, the extra time on her hands made her really re-evaluate and helped her decide what was important and what she wanted to do next.
“After everything that happened in 2020, that in a weird way made me just sit and think about what I wanted to do with my life in a way, and really assess kind of where I was,” she recalled, “just because there was like so much time on my hands and that was my graduating year.”
As she continued to coach – mostly over Zoom – helping athletes to do everything they could to stay in top shape despite gym closures, Lu was doing apparatus work herself.
She still loved it.
As competitions resumed, Lu’s coaching duties increased. She started traveling to competitions with her athletes.
One day, as she watched a competition in Poland in the spring of 2021, it clicked: she wanted to do the sport again.
“I was like, ‘I would do anything just to go out, to be able to go on the carpet and do my own routine,’” Lu said of her revelation. “And then it kind of came to life when I jokingly brought it up to my coach because I was visiting the gym and she was like, ‘Okay, well, just come back after the next national competition, you’re gonna have your first training.’”
And so that’s what she did.
“It takes a village, essentially. Really, it does. Because just my ideas wouldn't have gotten me that far,” said Lu. “So, a lot of doubt and a lot of work and her just being like, ‘Yeah, of course, like you never know if you don't try.’ I think that's exactly what she said to me.”
“I don't have to work towards looking a certain type of way"
Without a blueprint to follow, Lu drew from her experience in dance, rehabilitation from prior training and watching what she’d seen other athletes do in different sports as she started back.
It was trial and error, she admits. She started with elements that she had done before, mostly apparatus handling. She’d see how it felt and adjust. If she detected a weakness, she’d work on it. She brought back drills from her time, years earlier, on the youth elite squad and conditioning exercises the young girls at her gym were doing.
The process wasn’t always linear, but she knew she was learning, changing both mentally and physically, as it went on.
“The flexibility portion was extremely slow and that I had to be really careful about because I didn't want to over strain anything,” explained Lu. “It's a lot different once you're older, you don't have as much flexibility, just like natural flexibility, to use. It took me a while to warm up and I guess mental patience was something that I really had to grow to learn.”
She says getting back into the sport wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be, in part due her mindset shift.
“It is less taxing than I thought it was going to be. I think because part of this new, I guess, comeback period is that I'm learning to accept the strength that my body can have as opposed to before,” Lu said. “I think my mindset thankfully has changed over the years from like I need to look physically a [certain] type before, to now being like I feel strong.
“I don't have to work towards looking a certain type of way,” she continued, “and I think that has made all the difference in how I feel doing the sport.”
"Just because it hasn't been done before, it's not impossible"
Lu made several appearances in competitions earlier this year, mostly in unscored exhibition-type performances, before hitting the carpet for real at May’s elite qualifier in Grand Rapids.
Though she won the hoop title and finished eighth in the all-around, the scores and placements didn’t mean much.
“I'm happy that I managed to, I guess, pull through the weekend knowing that I'd shown things that I was capable of doing, even if I could have done better and could have done more,” said Lu of her return to competition. “I think my coach was really excited that I had scored well in hoop, but I necessarily wasn't. She told me the scores, told me the rank. And I said, ‘Oh, that's great.’ You know, like it's a surprise to me that after five years that that was the result, but I was just more excited that I kind of like got to show my routines and told these stories.”
Her return to the sport is about more than competitions, though those continue both long term (she plans to continue at least to the end of the quadrennium) and also imminently at the USA Gymnastics Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, in late June, it’s about showing her love of the sport and defying limits she once worried about.
“I think that [worrying about age] is a very unhealthy dialog to put into your system when you're not even an adult. I mean, I was 19 or 20 even thinking that I was old and couldn't do these things anymore,” said Lu. “And I think it will bleed into life. When I got to school, I was always, constantly thinking, it's too late, it's too late. I can't do these things.
“So, I hope one thing people take out from [my comeback] is that I guess age is shouldn't be a great limiting factor in anything that you want to do in your life,” she continued. “If you want to do it, that should not be a reason why you shouldn't. Age should definitely not be the reason why you shouldn’t do something that you think about.”
No matter what happens next, Lu has no regrets about pushing back on the urge to always be moving forward and taking the - literal and figurative - leap back to the sport she loves.
“Just because it hasn't been done before, it's not impossible. It just means that someone just hasn't done it before,” she said matter-of-factly. “That's very much it. Someone’s always going to be the first person to do something. And it's scary, but I think the result is really worth it.”