Meet one of DePaul’s 2020 Olympians: Nicole Sladkov


Courtesy of Nicole Sladkov

Nicole Sladkov is not an average student at DePaul University.

Sladkov, 21, a native of Vernon Hills, competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this past July. She and four other girls, all 21-years or younger, competed for the United States in rhythmic gymnastics.

You can watch the USA Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team compete in the qualifying rounds here.

While Sladkov’s athletic resume is undoubtedly impressive, you might be asking yourself, “what is rhythmic gymnastics?”

She explained the sport as a combination of acrobatics, ballet and dance, involving an apparatus, such as balls, clubs, or ribbons. The apparatus changes every two years in competition.

Sladkov broke down the basics of the sport that requires a mastery of communication, artistry, athleticism, and creativity in its athletes.

One can compete in this event either individually or with a group. Individuals complete four total routines between 75-90 seconds long. For the group competitions, they perform two routines that last two and a half minutes.

Teams are judged based on their exchanges, elements they incorporate – like turns, leaps and balances – and also different types of collaborations too.

Sladkov has been practicing rhythmic gymnastics since she was a child, following in the footsteps of her mother, Milena, who was the individual Latvian National Champion of the Senior division in 1989.

“I owe it all to her,” Sladkov said. “From day one, she’s been my number one supporter. She started her own club and named it M&N for ‘Milena and Nicole.’”

Despite being a fierce competitor, Sladkov’s mother gave her daughter the freedom to pursue the sport at her own leisure.

“She never pressured me,” Sladkov said. “She only said ‘do the sport if you want to do it and if it gives you joy.’ I’m really grateful for that because I’ve heard a lot of stories from different teammates of their parents pushing them into the sport.”

While her parents didn’t pressure Sladkov into the sport, nor wanted her to compete in it for very long so she could focus on school, her passion was certainly there.

Sladkov mentioned she wanted to make the Olympic team after watching the Olympics with her parents for the first time. She furthered her passion to qualify for the Olympics after competing for the junior national team back when she was 12 under her current Olympic coach, Margarita Mamzina.

After competing on three USA teams for world competitions, competing in numerous invitationals across the globe and making it on the women’s Olympic team, Sladkov and her team had a pivotal moment at the most recent Pan-American Games.

“I think our pivotal competition would be the one where we found out we qualified [for the Olympics],” Sladkov said. “We found out in Brazil during our Pan-American Championships in June. We found out we qualified because of the European Championships.”

In short, Ukraine did so well at the World Championships in 2019 and at the European Championships in 2021 that they allocated their spot for the Olympics to the USA.

Going into the Olympics, the goals for the team were pretty straight forward.

“We didn’t have any expectations coming in because our goal was already met,” said Sladkov. “Our goal was to make it [to the Olympics]. Of course, there’s always the thought of ‘I could make finals’ or ‘I could medal.’ But, for us it was just going out there and trying to pull off two clean routines, which is exactly what we did.”

The team completed two dazzling, clean routines, which landed them 11th place in the qualifying round. They did not make finals for the group, but still accomplished their goal.

Photo credit: Nicole Sladkov

Sladkov’s parents watched her compete at a watch party in Orlando, which was set up for all the competitors’ families. After the team nailed both routines, Sladkov’s mother did a cartwheel at the watch party.

Sladkov shared her experiences living in the Olympic village too. Whether it was pin trading, a tradition where athletes exchange pins from different countries and competitions, going to stores in the village, or talking to Pita Taufatofau – a Tongan Olympic icon that competed in his third straight Olympics, Sladkov certainly created an unforgettable experience.

“We didn’t go outside the village unless we went to the gym,” Sladkov said. “But, we went to support the artistic gymnasts. The Olympic rings were pretty popular. We found time to go to the souvenir store, the Samsung store and some of my teammates got their nails done.”

The team capped off their Olympic journey by going to the closing ceremonies, since they competed on one of the last days of the entire Olympics.

After Sladkov capped off her season with an illustrious trip to compete in her first Olympics, she is calling it a career…for now.

“So, I’m actually retiring,” Slakov said. “For now I’m done to get my degree, but Paris is only three years away so who knows, maybe I can come back then.”

Sladkov’s whole life has revolved around gymnastics. Since childhood, she has trained most days for 3 to 4 hours. On top of her daily schedule, she traveled internationally to compete, which she claimed has kept her out of school for as long as a month sometimes.

Now, she wants to be a full-time student at DePaul. She’s currently a junior and expected to receive a bachelor’s degree in business administration in two years. Because of her busy schedule with gymnastics, she has never taken an in-person class on DePaul’s campus. Needless to day, she is thrilled to live the college lifestyle.

“A lot of my friends went to DePaul,” Sladkov said. “I heard it has a great business school and everything and has great connections and it’s in the heart of the city. I thought why not stay at home while I have the chance for undergrad and see where life takes me for grad school.”

While the Olympics was one of her first stops, she is optimistic that DePaul will launch her future in the right direction.

“I’m sure DePaul has so many things to offer me,” she said. “Whether it be academics, athletics, career paths, internships. I just want to dive into it and see what life outside of gymnastics is like.”

One thing’s for certain, whatever Sladkov ends up pursuing, she will be successful. She has always told herself when it came to athletics that she is “limitless.”

Sladkov has her eye on finding her passion for her career. Whether it be coaching gymnastics at her mother’s gym, working in business or doing something else in sports, she is ecstatic to turn to a new chapter in her life.

“If there’s no passion then what’s the point,” Sladkov said.