Staying in rhythm: DePaul freshman finds her groove coaching young athletes

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When freshman Michelle Przybylo participated in rhythmic gymnastics, her skills went beyond practicing at the gym. Przybylo competed all around the world, including being points away from qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics.

Sept. 19, 2011 is a moment always remembered for Przybylo. She and five other teammates from Glenview, Ill., traveled to Montpellier, France for the 2011 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships. If they finished in the top six, the team would be heading to London.

Przybylo, dealing with a hip injury, would only be performing the second routine. However, she was ready. The team had arrived in France a week early and after years of training, they knew the routine. She knew the routine.

For most of it, the routine sailed smoothly for the team. Przybylo was in sync and nailed her parts. The music ended and Przybylo, who had her back to her teammates, turned back around only to find her teammate fell on a lift in the final seconds.

The fall was costly and just like that, Przybylo’s dreams of qualifying for the London Olympics ended right there.

Now a year and a half later, Przybylo is back in the gym under a different role – being an assistant coach to the next generation of rhythmic gymnasts who hope to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janiero Olympics.

“It makes me so happy walking into the gym and acting as if I’m going to practice, but I’m not,” said Przybylo. “I’m going to help them be better at what they’re doing.”

Przybylo helps train six athletes at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center three to four times a week. She started off small, teaching groups of 8- to 10-year-olds the basics of gymnastics. Once her coach, Angelina Yovcheva, went on maternity leave, Przybylo started working full time with the six girls who take part in group competition.

Group competition is in a way similar to synchronized swimming, Przybylo described. Her role as a trainer is to make sure all the gymnasts are in sync with their routine and deal with apparatuses such as rope, hoops, balls, or clubs.

The six girls who Przybylo assists are Natalie McGiffert, Alisa Kano, twins Monica and Jenny Rokhman, Laura Tutunikou, and Sharon Dassouli.

Przybylo mentioned that being a former gymnast helps her relate to training the girls – many of whom she knew from her days of competing.

“It’s really nice to grow with these girls. I’m a fresh gymnast that understands what these girls are going through,” said Przybylo. “I look at the music technicalities and see how they are moving to the music. I help them a lot more personally when they are doing tosses on the side. I teach them how to do the toss the proper way, so they aren’t doing it the wrong way.”

In particular, Przybylo said that her former experience really helps connect with Dassouli. A junior in high school, Dassouli has been competing in rhythmic gymnastics since the age of five and is finally paving her way to be a part of the Olympics after being too young to compete for the 2012 Games.

“She’s really stubborn and knows what she wants,” said Przybylo. “She’s been watching group for so long that it’s nice to see her living out this dream. She tends to be the biggest issue on the team, but when me and the other coaches are there assisting, we obviously understand that she has been through all of this already.”

When she isn’t coaching, Przybylo is dealing with her life at DePaul. She said that she came to DePaul for the city atmosphere and to accomplish other life goals. Przybylo is currently a psychology major. Her days as a performing gymnast are behind her.

“I love DePaul,” said Przybylo. “Coming to college and being able to choose my own classes and have a major to focus on makes it a lot more fun for me. It makes me more motivated.

“I like that everybody I meet here has some sort of drive to them,” she said. “Most of my friends who go to state school, when I go to visit them, are worried about partying or just getting a passing grade. Here at DePaul, people seem more motivated and I like that about it.”

The transition from athlete to coach was difficult at first, Przybylo said. The gymnast retired from competing during her senior year of high school after capturing a silver medal and a bronze medal at the 2011 Pan American Games.

Suddenly, the sport that had been a part of her life since the age of five appeared to be over. Most Olympic athletes don’t have to retire until their mid-thirties, and Przybylo being forced to retire in her teenage tears was not an easy task.

“It was really hard to process to not have gymnastics in my life,” said Przybylo. “I had to take a break from the sport because our bodies were done and I couldn’t handle the sport much longer. Once you’re past that point, it was more like ‘it’s just not going to leave me.'”And although Przybylo may not be competing any longer, she has no plans of leaving the gym and the world of gymnastics.

“I’m always going to be here and doing things in the gym and for this team.”