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For Laura Zeng, Youth Olympic Medal Was Just One Step On Rhythmic Gymnastics Ladder

By Clay Latimer | June 24, 2015, 8:49 p.m. (ET)

Laura Zeng competes in the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around qualification at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games at Nanjing OSC Gymnasium on Aug. 26, 2014 in Nanjing, China.

Laura Zeng’s life is frenetic most days, but on a Wednesday in August it was really humming.

The 2014 Youth Olympic Games were set to start in Nanjing, China, in a week, and the then-14-year old rhythmic gymnast was working furiously to get ready.

“She had two practices a day, and since the training venue was an hour away, she was on a bus almost four hours a day, while recovering from jet lag,” said Caroline Hunt, USA Gymnastics’ senior director for rhythmic gymnastics.

“One day a coach took a picture of her: She was sleeping on the bus so she could get the energy to train really hard.”

It takes a lot to throw Zeng off balance.

(L-R) Maryia Trubach of Belarus (silver), Irina Annenkova of Russia (gold) and Laura Zeng (bronze) celebrate during the medal ceremony after the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around final at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games at Nanjing OSC Gymnasium on Aug. 27, 2014 in Nanjing, China.

In a sport historically dominated by Russia and Eastern European countries, the ninth-grader from Libertyville, Illinois, overcame unfamiliar hoopla to claim the bronze medal in the all-around. It was the first U.S. medal of any kind in rhythmic gymnastics in either the Olympic or Youth Olympic Games.

“To see the U.S. flag rise and to realize I was at the Olympics — it was indescribable,” Zeng said. “I was so proud of myself, and so proud to have shown that the U.S. is up there. I feel our country is rising. Since then, I have every reason to keep on reaching.”

The Youth Olympic Games were only one step in a long journey for Zeng, a perfectionist who makes the difficult and painful appear easy and graceful in her exhaustively researched and regimented routines.

Since joining the senior ranks this year, she has rolled through an international schedule, peppering medal-winning performances with trademark flair and picking off Eastern European stars along the way.

She’s poised now to make her biggest leap yet at this week’s USA Gymnastics Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, which could serve as a springboard into the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games and Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

“She’s so focused and performance-geared,” Hunt said. “She proved she could handle Olympic-level pressure at the Youth Olympics. But she’s in her first year in the senior division, and it’s been a pretty demanding year. There’s a lot of pressure. So I’m hopeful she’s just focused on competing consistently. If she can do that, the sky’s the limit.”

Zeng’s expectations were as modest as her height at her first practice. She was 7, and already involved in competitive swimming, Chinese folk dance and ballet. Rhythmic gymnastics quickly became her calling, however, taking up 30 hours of time a week at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center near Chicago, the home for some of America’s premier rhythmic performers.

In what seemed like a blink, Zeng received an invitation to a national youth developmental camp, blossomed athletically and artistically, won back-to-back national all-around championships and swept the field at the 2014 Junior Pan American Championships, which earned her a ticket to China, where her parents emigrated from.

“I’m the first of my family to be born in America,” she said. “My parents came here about 20 years ago. When I was 6, I went back to China and met (relatives). But it’d been a long time. So it was very cool when they came out and watched me.

“The Youth Olympics were a huge opportunity. But I was definitely nervous, too.”

Not too nervous to enjoy the cultural exhibitions and rich conversations that make the Youth Olympic Games an unusual affair.

“After the long hours of training and long hours on the bus, she still participated in the cultural activities,” Hunt said.

“She seemed to make friends with people from all over the world. I just thought: `Wow, this is an amazing girl.’ She is literally embodying the spirit of what these Games are supposed to be about.”

On the mat, Zeng was no less impressive. Under the watchful eye of her coach, Angelina Yovcheva, her hoops routine to Bizet’s “Carmen” earned her first place after one rotation. Though she slipped a bit in her final event (ribbon), losing a silver medal by a mere .2 points, she proved that an American could earn a place on the podium — a lesson she plans to take with her in coming weeks.

“I think I’m pretty athletic, that I have a style,” she said. “I feel I have a lot of energy and power and rhythm, too. And I like to perform. For me, the most fun is when I’m smiling and dancing and I sense the audience is enjoying my routine. I try to feel it.

“But the Youth Olympics was such a big stage for me. At the end, I didn’t even really notice the audience. It was like, `Phew, I’m done. I did it.”’

Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.