Alice Mao

When I was 12 years old, I attended my first international rhythmic gymnastics competition. After being named to the junior national team of the United States that year, I soon began traveling abroad annually, training and competing in various tournaments and World Cups across Europe. By the flag on my arm, I was representing my country. But by the nature of my face, I was representing my race. 

At that age, I could already feel the weight of responsibility, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant. I was too young to understand the gravity of my privilege, even though I knew it was special. 

When someone asks me what it means to be Asian-American, I think about my family — about my memories growing up and the things I learned we shared with a broader community. It’s an identity that is ever-changing, but always permanent — and centers around my relationship to a culture. 

But when I think about the question in the context of being an athlete, the focus shifts. That understanding of my identity was formed more narrowly, through a relationship between myself and the “public.” Separate from the people around me, I learned to be aware of how I was projecting myself and how it was being received. I was developing a relationship with my image— which felt both powerful and fragile at the same time. 

Throughout my career, I feel like my role of representation played out on two levels, because I was a minority in two respects: American in the global schema of rhythmic gymnastics and Asian in the general arena of sports. 

In the most popular sports at the Olympics — like swimming, track and field, or artistic gymnastics (the discipline most people think of when they hear “gymnastics”) — the United States is a force to be reckoned with. Representing America carries a certain clout and implies medal contention. Both times I competed at the Games — in Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2021 — it was both exciting and gratifying to be momentarily associated with this prestige, because it wasn’t something I experienced normally.

For the past 20 years (except for the Tokyo 2021 upset), every rhythmic gymnastics individual Olympic winner has been Russian —and every podium made up of gymnasts from Russia, Belarus, or Ukraine. There are many factors that go into this historical Eastern European dominance, from the origins of rhythmic gymnastics in the Soviet Union to the embedded infrastructure and tradition of the sport in these countries today. But the bigger point is that unlike many others, being American in rhythmic gymnastics meant being an underdog — and constantly trying to fight for respect.

To be Asian then, might seem like an entirely separate issue. But the hyphen in “Asian-American” was never bringing together two disparate identities for me so much as encompassing one that was fully-intertwined. I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, but by two immigrant parents who came from China. I am fully Asian, but I am also fully American — and not one more than the other.

The origins of my name— like the nature of my identity—cannot be separated or compared. “Laura” and “Zeng” are stuck together as one. And no matter where in the world I was, I was always introduced in the same way and recognized in the same manner. During control practices (or mock competitions) in training, my coaches would announce my name with the same bravado they used at competitions to mark the moment as something meaningful. I grew up attaching myself to my whole name and knowing my identity as a complete entity.

So in every performance, I was exactly who I was. For any achievement I made or record I set, if I was doing so as the first American — then I was doing so as the first Asian-American too. And there was something kind of beautiful in that inevitability, because it meant that being Asian was never secondary to being American; rather, it was fundamental.

But just because I knew who I was didn’t mean I didn’t notice who was around me.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time training at Novogorsk, an elite athlete compound in Moscow. I would go there for a few weeks every few months with my coach, so I could train somewhere in between various competitions and learn from the best. Novogorsk is where all the top Russian athletes trained — and while it was a privilege to be surrounded by such excellence, it could also get incredibly lonely. The onus was on me to have learned Russian (which unfortunately, the farthest I got was gymnastics jargon). But even then, it was jarring to be around only Eastern European women for such long periods of time. When I was younger, a few gymnasts from Japan and Korea would also be training at the complex, to which it was always nice to see their “familiar faces”— even if the most we interacted with was just a few small smiles and nods.

One might say the quality of this purely “visual” representation seems superficial — how could I feel solidarity with an Asian gymnast just by her mere presence? But the thing about representation is that it can be precisely just that: potently visual. Rhythmic gymnastics is an aesthetic sport. It’s not just about what you do, but how you do it; not just about what you’re doing, but how you look while you’re doing it. I was trained to be acutely attuned to the small and subjective details, from the rhinestones on my leotard to the color of my lipstick. Presentation more than mattered — it was essential. And with such a heightened level of scrutiny, constant comparison was inevitable. In the context of aesthetics, representation is everything.

To be clear, there are actually a good and growing number of Asian rhythmic gymnasts in America. And sometimes I did train and travel with Asian-American teammates, for whom I was always glad to have implicit solidarity with. But my formative years in the sport were spent abroad and as I progressed, I felt the difference more acutely.

Among my Asian friends in public school at home, I was an outlier in a different way. And while stereotypes are diminutive when used as a shorthand for the whole picture, they do contain kernels of truth: most of my peers including myself did Kumon, played piano and were (thankfully for me, only briefly) encouraged towards STEM. So when I became an “athlete” first and foremost — and quit piano, among other things — my path became more and more distinct. Considering there are no scholarships, collegiate programs, or demonstrated financial incentive to entice them otherwise, it honestly makes sense why most immigrant parents wouldn’t choose to put their kids in the sport in the first place. Of course, I can speak now to the intangible and invaluable benefits my path has brought me — but at the time, the payoff was not immediately clear.

For that, I have only my mom and my dad to thank. They believed, showed and taught me that it doesn’t matter what I do — so long as I put my heart, soul and mind into doing it well. They guided me towards following an initial passion, even though it wasn’t a guaranteed investment. They took the risk — and thus the care — of letting me do something different, even though it wasn’t the norm.

In retrospect, what motivated me intrinsically as an Asian-American elite athlete is thus probably no different from what motivates many Asian-Americans everywhere: I wanted to make my parents proud. But what motivated me in addition to that was a relationship I developed with an audience and the responsibility of representation. Being Asian-American as an elite athlete ultimately made me very self-conscious, but it also taught me the power of humility.

The question of identity is one that is specific and personal, while the question of representation is one that is abstract and public. I think it’s confusing because sometimes my answers will overlap and I’ll realize that I’ve only understood my identity so far in the context of representation. But at its core, what it means to be Asian-American and what it means to be Asian-American as an elite athlete are two very different questions: both important to ask, but also important to separate.

Laura Zeng is a staff reporter covering arts and culture. Her column, “Ask an Olympian,” runs bi-monthly. Hailing from the suburbs of Chicago, she is interested in Architecture and the Humanities.