“We didn’t come this far, to come this far.”
Laura Zeng, a U.S. rhythmic gymnast, read those words said by her teammate Simone Biles. They clicked with her. All of the waiting, the extra training, the uncertainty – it was for a reason.
That reason became clearer June 26, when Zeng officially earned her spot to represent the U.S. in rhythmic gymnastics in Tokyo. Zeng, now a two-time Olympian, is the most accomplished rhythmic gymnast in American history.
This journey started for her when she was just 7 years old. A friend at Chinese dancing lessons in the north suburbs of Chicago invited Zeng to try rhythmic gymnastics. Zeng’s mother volunteered to help with the carpool.
“Kind of by accident, I got involved in the sport, and of course I've been doing it ever since. I'm 21 now, so it's been about 14, 15 years. And it's just something that I stuck with,” she said. “Because it's really such a unique sport, unique discipline, because it combines so much athleticism with artistry.”
Rhythmic gymnastics has four different pieces of equipment: ball, hoops, clubs and ribbon. Zeng performs a routine with spins, turns and throws, each using the equipment to show off artistry. Every apparatus needs its own routine with its own music and costume. Creating those routines is one of the things that motivates her.
“It's definitely a process because you're trying to find a beat that can inspire you. You are going to be using this routine for an entire year. So picking the music is so important, not only for the choreography, but also for yourself to make sure that when you're doing it throughout the whole year, you can find a connection to it,” she said. “And then you build off of that. You build your expression, you build off the character, your personality based off the routine, as well as finding inspiration for your leotard. And for everything that goes around it. So it is really trying to create a theme and something that you can connect to.”
Rhythmic gymnastics is an indoor sport, and a controlled environment is best for practicing. An errant wind off of Lake Michigan near Zeng’s home could result in a ribbon or a hoop stuck in the trees, so when the pandemic hit and gyms were closed, she figured out how to work at home.
“We were just stretching, trying to work on fundamentals and worked a lot with our physical therapists, who are really amazing at helping build us a program that we could try to maintain and even improve our strengths and weaknesses in certain areas focusing on my difficulties. And we were watching a lot of videos and trying to find some creative inspiration,” she said. “From anything and everything. We were watching circus video. We were watching hula hooping things, we were watching all different kinds of things to just try to find some inspiration from the moment.”
When Zeng was younger, her coach would often lead much of the choreography, but as she’s gotten older, she’s found a bigger role in creating her programs. Her goals are bigger, too. Zeng finished in eleventh place in Rio, missing out on making the final. No American has ever won a medal in rhythmic gymnastics.
“My goals are to perform the best that I know I can. It has been a very long cycle. We made so many changes to our teams, but my ultimate goal is to be able to perform my routines as well as I know I can,” she said. “And last time I did get a lot and I missed out on the finals by a few tenths. So getting into the top 10, getting into the all around finals is of course, one of those goals. But in order to get to that, I have to be able to perform to the best of my ability.”
After the Olympics, Zeng has a spot in the freshman class at Yale. Though she’s excited to get her college journey started, she is still focused on Tokyo. After all, she didn’t come this far to only come this far.