Libertyville gymnast stands out on world stage
If there's such thing as a grand debut on the main stage of rhythm gymnastics, Laura Zeng nailed it.
The 16-year-old from Libertyville achieved the highest finish in the sport by a U.S. athlete in senior competition with her 8th all-around place in September at the World Championship in Germany, besting Mary Sanders' 10th place in 2003.
And that's after sweeping all five gold medals -- in ball, club, ribbon, hoop and all-around -- this summer at the Pan American Games in Canada.
Laura's result in Germany secured a spot for the United States in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro -- and her hope is to compete there after trials are held next year.
"The last experience at the World Championship, it was definitely an exhilarating one. I had just come off four or five weeks of training in Europe and I was feeling really pumped," said Laura, who is in her first year as a senior competitor.
"It was my longest competition ever -- four days. As the competition went on, I felt really tired, especially the last day, when I felt my nerves accumulating. But I knew I trained so hard in Russia, and I knew that if I just trusted myself, I could perform my best."
Laura has incredible discipline and great focus, and she shines thanks to a unique combination of technical and artistic skills, said coach Natalia Klimouk.
"She's a very interesting athlete, not just a very good athlete," said Klimouk, director of North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in Deerfield. "People love her. It's a pleasure to watch her, because she loves to dance. And it's a pleasure to work with her because whatever you tell her, she takes everything from you."
Laura, a sophomore at Libertyville High School, says she's grateful for the coaching she's received over the years. She also credits her family -- parents Lily and Tian and older sister Yecca -- for always supporting her and encouraging her.
Her father's work ethic has been especially inspirational.
"He has pushed me to keep going even when I felt down," she said. "He's my secret power."
Laura grew up doing Chinese dancing. She started rhythm gymnastics at age 7 at the suggestion of a friend.
"Chinese dancing is definitely a huge part of my career and a strong basis for my style and foundation," she said. "It's something that I feel that's in me."
These days, her life is pretty much all about gymnastics and school.
During the week she goes straight from school to the training center, where she stays until about 7:30 p.m. She also spends a half day there on Saturdays.
Laura travels a great deal for competitions. In this year alone she's been to Canada, Russia, Italy, Portugal, Germany and Bulgaria.
Despite all the time spent training, Laura carries straight A's in school, something she achieves by pushing herself to do homework until as late as 2 a.m.
Her goal is to get into an Ivy League college.
"When I am not doing gymnastics, I am fully immersed in school. I check grades constantly on the (school) app," she said. "I'm one of those people that if I get a few points off, I get really angry. But I try to remind myself that a few points aren't everything."
Laura's career has risen steadily since she won the Junior Olympic rhythmic national championships in 2008. Still, there have been emotional ups and downs.
"There have always been competitions where I don't do as well, or days when I feel so tired, or days when I'm reluctant to keep going," she said. "But I always find the motivation."
Laura has the ability -- and perhaps more importantly, the willingness -- to truly absorb lessons, coach Angelina Yovcheva said.
She also knows how to push through stressful situations.
"When she has to deliver the best of herself, she really makes it," Yovcheva said.
Laura said that lately, she's found inspiration in a quote from "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho -- "It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting."
"Sometimes I thought about giving up, but then I realized I wouldn't have anything to pursue. I feel like my life would be empty without this goal that I am pursuing," she said. "Anyone, if they want to do something -- and I know this is cliché' -- but they should really go after it. They have to put all their energy into it."
School: Libertyville High School
Who inspires you? All the great international gymnasts. I like to watch each one of them -- what's unique about them, their style, and take note of that for myself.
What book are you reading? I don't have time for personal reading. This summer I read mystery books by J.K. Rowling.
What's on your iPod? I like all genres, especially pop.
The three words that best describe you? Dedicated. Diligent. Family-oriented.