NANJING, China -- Laura Zeng has learned how to adapt.
Competing at more than a handful of international competitions in her young career has helped her develop that skill. And that adaptability is what allowed Zeng recover from a shaky toss in her final event (ribbon) of the individual all-around rhythmic gymnastics competition at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, to claim the bronze Wednesday afternoon.
“When the toss didn’t go as well as I wanted it to go, I just tried to do the best that I could to adapt to the situation,” Zeng said. “I think I tried to adapt on each event, so if a toss wasn’t going the right way I just tried to think quickly and catch it so I did the best that I could.”
Zeng finished the day with a score of 56.750, just two hundredths behind Belarus’ Mariya Trubach, who took silver. Irina Annenkova of Russia won gold with 58.575. One day earlier in qualification, Zeng had finished second, more than four hundredths ahead of Trubach.
In the final, Zeng was strongest on clubs, where she had the second-highest score of the field (14.400), and hoop, where she had the third-highest score with a 14.450.
Zeng’s medal marks the first rhythmic gymnastics medal for the U.S. at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games.
“I focus on what I can do and the fact that I’ll be able to help rhythmic gymnastics is just an added plus,” Zeng said. “So I’m very happy about that.”
It’s an impressive feat for the 15-year-old as she enters her freshman year of high school. But Zeng has dedicated the past eight years of her life to the sport — after first studying Chinese dancing until a friend referred her to rhythmic gymnastics — and she plans to continue for many years to come.
Zeng trains four hours a day, six days a week at North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in Illinois. By her side in China was coach Angelina Yovcheva, who competed in rhythmic for Bulgaria in the 1990s.
“She used to be a gymnast so she can really relate to me,” said Zeng. “She understands how I feel and I’m really grateful to have her as a coach.”
Rhythmic gymnastics was added to the Olympic program in 1984 and Team USA has represented in the individual competition at all but two Games; however, U.S. athletes have only cracked the top 20 twice. Valerie Zimring tied for 11th in the sport’s debut in Los Angeles and, 20 years later, Mary Sanders finished 15th at the Athens Games.
While Zeng is on the junior national team and looks forward to joining the senior ranks soon, current U.S. senior standouts include Jazzy Kerber, Cindy Lu, Serena Lu, Aliya Proto and Rebecca Sereda. All five were on the gold medal-winning team at the 2014 Pan American Championships, while Kerber and Sereda went 1-2 in the all-around. Kerber also took gold in clubs and ribbon, silver in ball and bronze in hoop. Protto captured gold in hoop earlier this year at the Pacific Rim Championships, as well as silver in all-around and ball, and bronze in clubs and ribbon.
Kerber, Serena Lu and Sereda will compete at the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships Sept. 22-28 in Izmir, Turkey, where they hope to continue their international success.
Zeng is already paving her own path to hopefully achieve the same senior success. The Youth Olympic Games mark Zeng’s eighth international assignment and 30th international medal. In May, she won gold in all four event finals, as well as the all-around title, at the Junior Pan American Championships.
She believes the latest crop of U.S. athletes have what it takes to be competitive on the world stage.
“We’ve been trying very hard to train more, train smarter, get more choreographers, learn from different countries that have done well in the past,” she said. “So I think that we’re learning and we’re headed in the right direction.”