Courtesy of Laura Zeng

In early August, Laura Zeng ’25 competed in the Tokyo Olympics as a rhythmic gymnast and seasoned competitor on the world stage. Later that month, her dad had one last piece of advice before he left her at Old Campus: “Enjoy your new life.”

For Laura, who has been training to become a world-class rhythmic gymnast since her childhood, the transition to life at Yale has come thick and fast. She has competed in two Olympics — 2016 and 2020 — and four World Championships, two of which doubled as Olympic qualifiers. In a historic performance, she swept all five events at the 2015 Pan-American games in Toronto. She was an accomplished youth athlete as well, winning the bronze medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing in 2014. Now, she is a first year at Yale and a member of Ezra Stiles College.

“It still feels kind of surreal that this is going to be my life,” Zeng said. “It can sound kind of intense, but it is a new life.”

Zeng’s parents and sister are Chinese American immigrants, and her performance background began with Chinese dancing, which often involves classical Chinese music and dancing with fans. When a friend in her Chinese dancing class needed a carpool for rhythmic gymnastics, Zeng’s mom offered to drive the pair of kids. Zeng then picked up gymnastics and did not look back.

For the next two decades, Laura’s routine became “sleeping in the car [and] doing homework in the car” as her mom drove her back and forth from the rhythmic gymnastics gym, North Shore Rhythmics, near their home in Libertyville, Illinois. She would regularly go to school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and train for several hours in the afternoon.

“My mom has been driving me around and feeding me, doing everything that I needed in order to continue doing [rhythmic] gymnastics throughout all these years,” Zeng said.

Zeng’s family has always been at the center of her career. She recalls that her mom never pushed her or pressured her to be successful but provided the tools she needed. Her dad was the “wizard behind the scenes,” the one who guided her through the early years of her career. Zeng’s father sent her to ballet camps and Chinese dancing as a young girl to nurture her talent.

(Photo: Courtesy of Laura Zeng ’25)

Zeng’s sister, Yecca, is eight years older and watched Zeng grow up.

“From a young age, she always was very committed to anything that she tried,” Yecca Zeng said. “She’s always very eager, talented, and driven.”

When she was 12 years old, Zeng began competing internationally, representing the United States on the world stage.

Throughout Zeng’s teenage years, she balanced both gymnastics and school. While some other rhythmic gymnasts switched to homeschooling to focus more on their careers, Laura Zeng continued public high school in Libertyville, even as she would miss weeks at a time traveling internationally to competitions.

Zeng met her best friend, Serena Lu, through rhythmic gymnastics at a developmental camp, designed to set athletes up for the national team track.

“There is a very strong chance that she doesn’t actually say how extraordinary she is, but I’m going to say it, because she’s one of the most amazing, dedicated and hardworking people that I’ve ever met,” Lu said.

Zeng’s hard work began to reap rewards. She placed well at the 2015 World Championships, earning her a spot in the 2016 Olympic Games. She swept the Pan-American Games in 2015, and in 2016, she went to Rio to represent the United States in the Summer Olympics at age 16.

“Every time I went to the dining hall [at the 2016 Olympics], I would just sit with random people,” Zeng said. “First, I would be like ‘Do you speak English,’ and then I’d say ‘Can I sit with you’ and I would just talk to them for, maybe just 10 minutes, but I wanted to soak in as much as I possibly could.”

As a 16-year-old, one of her favorite parts of the process was the Olympic merch from Ralph Lauren and Nike: “I got my watch, got my rings, got all my bling,” Zeng said, recalling her excitement at the time.

Once Zeng got back to Libertyville, her classmates threw her a parade at the start of her junior year of high school. 

Zeng graduated from high school in 2018, originally planning to take two gap years to train for the 2020 Olympics and then enroll at Yale in the fall of 2020.

“All my friends were moving on to college, which also seemed like a brand new exciting experience,” Zeng said. “And here I was still in the same sport I had been doing for my whole life. So that was harder for me.”

Zeng would embark on a two-year training schedule to prepare for the Olympics. In the run up to the 2016 Olympics, Laura said she was just “following the path forward.” The second time around, after experiencing significant success, she set higher expectations for herself. In 2019, her top-15 performance at the World Championships in Azerbaijan earned her a berth in the 2020 Olympics.

In March 2020, a little more than four months before the scheduled start of the Olympics, Zeng woke up in Russia to calls and texts from her parents and her program. Zeng had been training in Russia for the Olympics, but she had to leave immediately. The looming threat of a travel ban forced Zeng to abruptly put her in-person training on hold, pack her bags and head back to the United States. For several months, Zeng’s gym was closed.

“That was definitely time for a lot of deep thinking [and] reflection,” Zeng said.

In Europe, many government gyms stayed open throughout the pandemic, allowing athletes to continue in-person training. Once her gym opened later in 2020, Zeng noted how grateful she was to have a gym to train in and coaches around her so she could continue her training. Though the 2020 Olympic games were officially postponed to 2021, the future of the Games was unclear. Zeng chose to take another gap year to stay sharp for Tokyo, citing that since she had already been training for two years, she “might as well go all out.”

Zeng’s Olympic experience was markedly different her second time around. She was not a 16-year-old junior in high school but a 21-year-old veteran of the sport. Zeng felt she reached the 2016 Olympics on “happenstance,” yet she had been training specifically for the 2020 Olympics  for three years. That change in mindset brought more pressure, she said.

The United States qualified a full team of seven, and Zeng was the only athlete with previous Olympic experience. But the Tokyo games were different, Zeng said, from the plexiglass between seats in the dining hall to the aesthetic of empty stands.

Ultimately, Zeng felt as though she did not perform her best in the 2020 Olympics, though she did finish in the top half of competitors. She also competed with a full United States team, which she said was an impressive feat for a sport typically dominated by Eastern Europe. Zeng believes that rhythmic gymnastics is growing in the United States, and the qualification of a full team — which has not typically happened — is prime evidence.

“Based on our results, based on the trajectory, already the growth we see,” Zeng said. “Our national team size is bigger, more girls are traveling, more girls are interested. So, I think we’re on the right path.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Laura Zeng ’25)

Though it would be very difficult to continue her career through college, Zeng says the pandemic has taught her one thing: “Never say never.” 

Zeng enrolled in Yale this fall and is planning on majoring in urban studies. For her entire life, her success has been defined by firm goals related to school and gymnastics. At Yale, she wants to relax a bit, “to be less carpe diem and more que sera, sera.”

Like many students, Zeng is looking for new passions. She was able to make friends at the lunchroom in Rio in 2016 and looks to do the same at Yale this semester, noting the parallels of the diversity and friendliness of the Olympic Village and Yale’s campus.

To Zeng, success at Yale means “taking advantage of all the opportunities that Yale has to offer, but also letting go a little bit. And of course, finding myself. I hate to sound cliche, but it’s so true.”

CARTER DEWEES