By Doug Williams | April 26, 2017, 11:25 a.m. (ET)
Laura Zeng performs in the individual all-around at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 at Rio Olympic Arena on Aug. 20, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.


Sometimes it’s easy to forget Laura Zeng is just a junior in high school.

The 2016 Olympic rhythmic gymnast is traveling the world, excelling against the best in her sport and excited about her recent success in a pair of events in Europe. She’s working toward the world championships in Italy this summer while also eager to make the next Olympic team in 2020.

But at 17, Zeng also feels the reality of upcoming advanced placement tests, tucked in among training, traveling and competing in Europe. The next four years will bring college applications and visits and big life changes as well as the chance to compete in another Games.

“Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but most of the time I’m just completely grateful that I have all these different opportunities,” Zeng said from her home in Illinois.

Certainly, she’s made the most of those opportunities.

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At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games last year, Zeng finished 11th overall, tying her for the best Olympic finish by an American rhythmic gymnast. Then in her first international competition since Rio, Zeng has shown she’s building on that foundation.

At the world cup in Pesaro, Italy, in early April, she finished fourth in the all-around — the best finish ever by an American — while winning bronze medals in the hoop and clubs.

She followed that up a week later by winning the all-around title at the Ljubljana International Tournament in Slovenia. She also finished on top in the hoop, clubs and ribbon competition while winning bronze in the ball.

She went into the world cup event at Pesaro feeling excited about a new year and a new cycle toward the next Olympic Games in Tokyo. There’s a new code of points for this next three years (by which all the athletes will be judged), and Zeng says she and her teammates have worked hard to come up with new routines and stretch their limits. By the time she competed in Pesaro, she was eager to see what she could do.

“I was feeling pretty good,” she said. “I had been working on my routines really hard. We had just come from Russia from training (for an intense week), and so going into the competition I was just focused on performing my routines for the first time and hoping to show the audience and the judges my new composition.”

This year, she feels like she’s experimenting with four element routines that are much different in style.

“For hoop I have a Michael Jackson song, which is always exciting,” she said. “For ball I have a little bit more of a romantic French song. For clubs I have ‘Game of Thrones,’ and for ribbon I have a little more techno style almost. I just like the variety. Each routine requires a different expression, a different feeling. Going into each I can channel a different part of myself.”

As the year progresses, she’ll work to fine-tune them and maintain consistency as she points toward the national championships and the world championships (which also will be held in Pesaro) in late August. That’s the big goal for this year, to be at “peak performance” when she returns to Pesaro.

Building On Success

Though she’s still a teen, Zeng has been in the spotlight of her sport for a while. She won a bronze medal in the all-around at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, then followed that up in 2015 by winning all five gold medals at the Pan American Games in Toronto. Also in 2015 she was eighth in the all-around at the world championships (the highest placement by ever a U.S. woman). Last May at Minsk in Belarus, she became the first American to win a medal at a world cup event, winning bronze medals in hoop and ribbon.

The chance to compete in her first Olympic Games has just strengthened her determination to get better.

“Going in there was some pressure,” she said. “But at the same time it was mostly excitement that I felt and I think just coming off of that adrenaline-filled competition, it gave me momentum and motivation to keep on going and try and make the next one.”

That experience, plus the strong start this year, has reinforced her belief that she could someday win medals at a world championship or Olympic Games.

“I think it’s safe to say that,” she said. “I think after I’ve had all these competitions it’s helped me gain more confidence in my ability as an athlete in knowing that I have the potential to reach that level. It’s all up to me to be able to execute.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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