Laura Zeng at the 2015 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships on Sept 10. Credit: USA Gymnastics
GLENVIEW — Rhythmic gymnast Laura Zeng can add “history maker” to her long resume of accomplishments. Her eighth-place, all-around finish at the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship in Stuttgart, Germany last month was the best ever for a U.S. competitor.
After more than nine routines over five days of competition in front of thousands of fans, Zeng’s top 15 scores also qualified the country for an individual event spot at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting,” Zeng said of her journey, referencing a favorite quote from bestselling novel The Alchemist.
Back in 2014, Zeng earned a third-place finish at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China. She was also the U.S. Junior national champion in both 2013 and 2014, and won the U.S. Senior national title earlier this year. In her first season competing on the senior level, the high school sophomore has emerged as the highest-ranked American at No. 17.
Zeng, who just turned 16, trains locally at North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in Glenview. The five-time Pan Am gold medalist and World Clubs finalist has worked with NSR since she was seven.
“One of the first things we noticed from her were her eyes, smile, and unique connection with the music,” shared long-time coach Natasha Klimouk. “From a young age, her talent and potential was obvious, but what elevated her and set her apart was her commitment and passion for hard work.”
The North Shore Rhythmics program, staffed with renowned coaches and choreographers, operates in partnership with the Glenview Park District and also has a second center in Deerfield.
“It is so great to see such talented athletes and coaches rewarded for their hard work and determination,” said Ann Marie Shipstad, the cultural arts supervisor at the Glenview Park District.
“NSR runs an incredible program that caters to both the recreation gymnast and also to the elite level athletes,” she continued. “This is a tough balance, but they manage to excel at both genres. It is an inspiration for young gymnasts who are just starting out in this sport to be able to watch these Olympians train; it inspires and motivates the kids so much. It is a positive influence for everyone.”
The Olympic athletes heading to Brazil on behalf of Team USA won’t be selected until trials competitions next year. To prepare, Zeng said she does twice-a-day training sessions, which include strength, endurance, flexibility and interval elements.
Zeng with fellow NSR gymnasts. Credit: Zeng/Facebook
With local eyes proudly on Zeng, Daily North Shore spoke with the talented teen – and her coach – to learn more about why Laura loves the sport and how she’s feeling about a potential Olympics debut.DNS: First, a huge congrats to you, Laura! Your top-15 finish at the 2015 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships means Team USA will have a spot at the Summer Olympics. What does that feel like?
LZ:Finishing in the top 15 at Worlds was amazing, but even more so the feeling of accomplishment after so much hard work. I qualified the United States to the Olympics, but not myself. Certainly I will try to qualify for it at the 2016 U.S Nationals along with my National Team members. I’m grateful just to have qualified the country, and will keep working hard!
DNS: How has your work with NSR helped to shape the kind of gymnast you are today?
LZ:The North Shore coaches helped develop my style; they are all very energetic and encouraging. They motivate me to train harder.
DNS: Natasha, how have you seen Laura grow as an athlete since you started working with her?
NK:She is incredible at taking in information from all the coaches and translating that onto the floor. As with any gymnast, it was a layer-by-layer process in which we tried not only to make her physically strong, but mentally strong as well. One of the things we tried to emphasize the most was the love of the sport, and not forcing quick results on her. There is a right time for everything, and this is her time.DNS: What three words best describe Laura in the context of her gymnastic abilities and dedication to her craft?
NK:Discipline, focus, and confidence.
DNS: Laura – why do you remain so committed to the sport of gymnastics and what is the most rewarding piece of competing? Has participation in the Olympics always been a goal?
LZ:I’m drawn to the musicality and performance aspect of the sport. Finishing a successful routine is the most relieving and exciting piece of competition; allowing adrenaline and muscle memory to take charge when nerves start to rise is at the same time scary but exhilarating. The Olympics has always been a far-reaching dream of mine rather than a goal, but especially in the past couple of years it became a mantra in my head to push me to keep going.
DNS: When you think of competing in Rio this summer, what are you most excited about? How have supporters (classmates, teammates, family and friends…) reacted to your recent successes?
LZ:If I make it: Christ the Redeemer, the bright culture, just being in such a colorful country! Everyone is so excited for me and I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by people I can lean on. One of my friends even me asked me to autograph a pen that I lent her!
DNS: When you’re not training or competing, how do you like to spend your time? Your Team USA profile page mentions cooking; what’s your best/favorite dish?
LZ:I love reading, watching movies and TV shows, and playing board games with my family. As for favorite dish, I think my eggplant stir-fry is pretty tasty.