The U.S. rhythmic gymnasts are expert travelers: with just a few domestic competitions held on home soil each year, they often travel the World Cup circuit to perform at meets in Russia, Italy, Portugal and Azerbaijan.
So while the dedicated airline staff they encounter may know best when it comes to landing gear and cabin pressure, the rhythmic gymnasts are the authorities on how to properly stow a hoop on an airplane.
And it’s definitely not in the cargo hold.
Kiana Eide, a member of the U.S.’ rhythmic gymnastics group team, says flight attendants constantly look at their hoops and say, "No, we can’t fit that."
"We’re like, 'Trust me, we’ve done this, maybe once a month, we travel all the time,'" Eide said.
Aliya Protto, an individual rhythmic gymnast who won all-around gold at the 2016 Pacific Rim Championships, said the hoop is the toughest to fly with because it’s relatively big but very easy to damage.
“The flight attendants always give you the hardest time,” Protto said, “like ‘We can’t put that anywhere!’ and ‘Does it bend?’ And you’re like ‘No no no don’t break it! It’s really fragile and expensive!’”
Protto said that each hoop costs about $60. “It’s pretty pricey for a hoop! It’s not a hula hoop.”
The rhythmic gymnasts never check their equipment—the hoop, ball, ribbon and clubs, plus their competition leotards—because if it gets damaged or lost, they won’t be able to compete as well as they would with their trusted apparatus.
“If we check [the hoop] and it bends or breaks, we don’t have anything else,” Alisa Kano, another member of the rhythmic group said. “So we have to be really careful with that.”
“You wouldn’t want to go to the competition having to use a different apparatus that you’re not used to. Because everything is taped slightly differently, it would make a huge difference for us,” group member Natalie McGiffert added.
“It’s hard borrowing apparatus from other people,” Protto said. “They tape it differently, it’s weighed differently, it has a different feeling.”
On the rhythmic gymnastics group, Kristen Shaldybin has appointed herself guardian of the hoops. From the beginning of her time in the group, she insisted the hoops were safest in her hands.
“We’ll come out of the car and one of [the other group members] will have it, and I’m like, ‘No! I need the hoop! I need to hold it!’ I feel empty without it!” Shaldybin said.
Jennifer Rokhman, who will serve as the replacement athlete to the group team in Rio, explained, “I guess it’s easier when you have one person responsible for something. Sometimes you forget the equipment when you don’t know who’s responsible.”
When they traveled to the national championships in early June, Shaldybin had to prove to the airline staff that she knew the proper way to store hoops on a plane.
“This flight to Providence was a little tough,” she said. “The [flight attendant] was not allowing me my hoops, and I’m not putting them in the baggage claim because they’re so fragile—if you move one part it’s going to be crooked! So we won’t be able to do anything.
“And so I was like, ‘We go on so many, like five flights a month,’ and she was like ‘Fine, put it against the seat, the window.’ I was like ‘Thank you.’ I have my ways!”
Laura Zeng, who will be the U.S.’ sole individual rhythmic gymnast in Rio, explained that rhythmic gymnasts have a few go-to spots on the plane.
“Usually they have a closet they can put it,” she said, “or behind the last row, or if there’s space in between the window space and the window, on the side.”
Sometimes getting the equipment through security is a headache, too.
Monica Rokhamn, Jennifer Rokhman’s twin sister, said that the X-ray machine can make a harmless ribbon and stick appear dangerous.
“With the ribbons going through security, they thought it was a bow and arrow,” she said.
Eide said the clubs, which look a bit like oversized matchsticks, get questioned too. “[Security is] like ‘Are these weapons? and we’re like ‘They could be, but we don’t use them!’”
“'Are they flames? Are they weapons?’” Monica chimes in. “’Nooo…’ But they always think our equipment is the most interesting thing. Someone once asked if our hoop was a trampoline, or a dog hoop.” The circular covers rhythmic gymnasts use to protect their hoops make the apparatus look a lot like a mini trampoline.
“They really don’t know what it is,” McGiffert said. “They think it’s weapons or fishing poles.”
Luckily, rhythmic gymnasts tend to look like an innocent bunch.
“A lot of times,” McGiffert said, “I do notice that when our bag goes through [the X-ray] they’re looking at it questionably but then they see whose bag it is and they see us standing there like ‘Oh, ok.’”