Libertyville, Lincolnshire gymnasts find winning rhythm
When watching rhythmic gymnasts Laura Zeng and Camilla Feeley, you're not sure whether to be awe-struck or completely baffled as to how they do it.
Their leaps seem to defy the laws of physics. The flexibility in some of their turns shouldn't be medically possible. And don't forget about those four tricky apparatuses -- the ribbon, ball, hoop and clubs -- that elevate the risk and skill involved to an entirely different plane.
Now consider the grace the pair of 13-year-olds never fail to exhibit, despite the mental and physical demands of their sport.
"All the gymnasts competing at this level are talented, but Laura and Camilla have the psychological ability to show their best when their heart is beating out of their chest," said Dani Takova, who helps coach the duo at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastic Center in Deerfield.
Their best was certainly evident in June at the U.S. Rhythmic Championships in Orlando, where both gymnasts secured spots on this year's eight-member junior national team.
Laura, a wise-beyond-her-years eighth-grader at Highland Middle School in Libertyville, became the reigning national junior champion after placing first in the all-around competition. She also finished first in hoop, second in ball and clubs, and fifth in ribbon.
"It was inspiring for me standing on that podium," Laura said. "I actually feel like I could have done better because there's always room for improvement, but I was really happy all my hard work paid off."
Camilla, a teammate whose family recently moved to Lincolnshire from Maryland, likewise thrived under pressure. Finding herself in ninth place after two days of competition, Camilla stepped it up to finish seventh in the all-around. She also took sixth in clubs, seventh in ribbon and eighth in hoop.
"The past year has definitely been my best," Camilla said. "I didn't feel as nervous as usual. I think I was confident because I was so over-practiced."
Rhythmic gymnastics is a relatively new Olympic sport, joining the mix at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Routines are choreographed to music and involve body elements and dance paired with the four small pieces of equipment.
Gymnasts cover the entire floor, executing a combination of jumps, leaps, pivots, balances and flexibility movements all the while throwing, catching, swinging, bouncing or passing an apparatus.
Some of the combinations Laura and Camilla have mastered -- imagine tossing a hoop high in the air, doing some turns and then catching it by leaping through it -- are truly spectacular.
Rhythmic gymnastics hasn't enjoyed the same level of popularity here in the U.S. as its artistic counterpart that's made stars out of Gabby Douglas, Kerri Strug and Mary Lou Retton. But Laura and Camilla have seen the kind of following it has in other countries. Camilla finished 10th in the all-around at the Gymnastik International 2013 in Germany, while Laura won the all-around. Laura also has competed in Bulgaria and Portugal.
"It's very different over there," Laura said. "The crowds are bigger and more enthusiastic. In Portugal, they even had chants and signs."
Both just happened upon the sport at a young age. Laura, who grew up doing Chinese dancing, started at age 7 after a friend told her about it. Camilla was drawn to it after seeing some girls working with the ribbon. She took a class at age 5 and knew she was hooked when an unrelated broken arm kept her on the sidelines.
"I'd cry every day that I couldn't participate, so I knew I loved it," she said. "I wasn't even naturally flexible in the beginning. It's taken a lot of work to build up to this."
Each gymnast has her sights set on the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China. To help prepare, the junior national team will meet every few months. The next is in October, when they'll attend a weeklong training camp at renowned coach Bela Karolyi's ranch near Houston.
North Shore Rhythmics Director Natasha Klimouk said the U.S. will have just two spots for rhythmic gymnasts at the Youth Olympics but that both Laura and Camilla stand a good chance at grabbing them. The decision will be made next spring at a qualifier in Orlando.
"Both girls are at very high level," Klimouk said. "But it's not about talent. It's about how hard they work in the gym and how wisely they use their time. Both are very good at daily practice."
Klimouk isn't exaggerating about the daily practice part. Laura and Camilla are in the Deerfield gym three to four hours a day, six days a week. Practice typically consists of ballet lessons, intense stretching, passes across the floor and crafting their competition routines.
"Then it's repeat, repeat, repeat," Takova said.
Despite their demanding schedules, both girls are straight-A students.
Camilla is home-schooled and takes her courses online, so she has a bit more flexibility in her schedule. Quiet and focused, Camilla said she's committed to improving her technique and skill. She said she hopes to place higher and have some fun along the way.
Laura, who goes to the gym everyday after school, often finds herself eating in the car and squeezing homework and sleep into her schedule.
She also finds a way to keep up her ballet training, which helps elevate her gymnastics. This past summer, she successfully auditioned to spend five weeks at the prestigious Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance in New York. In 2012, her summer ballet intensive was at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. She started dancing on pointe when she was 10.
Laura looks for inspiration from role models in her life including senior national team member Jazzy Kerber of Highland Park.
"I just love blending the gracefulness of the ballet and the athleticism and the strength of the equipment," she said. "It's so unique and beautiful."
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.
Standouts: Both girls are straight-A students
The scoop on the gymnastsCamilla Feeley
Who inspires you? Everyone in different ways
What's on your iPod? OneRepublic, Selena Gomez, Alexx Calise, Taio Cruz
What book are you reading? "Harry Potter" by J.K. Rowling
The three words that best describe you? Determined, passionate, fun
School: Highland Middle School
Who inspires you? My dad, for being the most diligent, driven and focused person I know; my sister, for being a positive, amazing fashion designer; my mom, for being so strong and my ultimate rock!
What's on your iPod? "Love on Top" (Beyonce), "Dance with Me Tonight" (Olly Murs), "Feel Again" (OneRepublic)
What book are you reading? "Mao's Last Dancer" by Li Cunxin
The three words that best describe you? Dedicated, responsible, polite