Irvine gymnast bound for Summer Olympics

Annaliese Dragan of Irvine will vie for a gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics at the Summer Olympics in Paris.

When the Summer Olympics open in July, Irvine’s Annaliese Dragan will be one of just 24 rhythmic gymnasts in the world competing for an individual gold medal.

“Ever since I was 6 years old, I’ve dreamed of this,” says Dragan, 18, who trains at her mom’s gym, Nimble Rhythmic Gymnastics, in Irvine. “Winning an Olympic medal would be my biggest dream ever come true.”

She discovered the sport with the help of her mother, Paula Dragan, who competed on Romania’s junior national gymnastics team in her youth. It didn’t take long for Annaliese to break out. At her first international competition, at age 11, she placed third.

“We went just to get experience,” she says. “But after that, I knew I had the potential to go further.”

Qualifying for the Olympics

Annaliese upped her training to six hours, then eight hours, a day; she studied ballet; and she began working with a sports psychologist who utilizes visualization, meditation and breathing techniques to steady nerves and improve performance.

She also trains with her younger sister, Christina, 16, a rising star who has won several European competitions.

“We go to international meets together,” Annaliese says. “We’re like a team. I don’t think I could have done this without her.”

Annaliese, who will compete for Romania as her mother once did, qualified for the Olympics at the 2023 World Championships in Spain. It came down to her and the last athlete to compete.

“When the scores came in, I started crying,” she says. “Then I started jumping up and down and hugging everybody. It was the best moment of my life.”

Grace and coordination

In Paris, rhythmic gymnasts will perform four 90-second routines, each with a different apparatus: hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon. The top 10 advance to the finals.

“The sport emphasizes grace and coordination,” Paula Dragan says. “It’s beautiful, but as a parent, it’s almost unbearable waiting for your child to finish. I feel like I can’t breathe for those 90 seconds.”

How does Annaliese handle it?

Just before she goes on, she’ll take a few breaths, fix her hair and do a few small jumps to warm up her feet.

Then, when they announce her name, she’ll step on the carpet of the Porte de la Chapelle Arena and let go of everything.

“At that moment, there’s no more time to think about anything,” she says. “I just want to enjoy the routine and do the best I can.”

The Dragan family: Valentin, Annaliese, Christina and Paula