© John Cheng

By Nick McCarvel

Laura Zeng isn’t sleeping much lately.

A few months after the Chicago-area teenager finished 11th at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in rhythmic gymnastics – which matched the best ever finish for an American (1984) – the high school junior is pushing as hard as ever.

She is taking a collection of A.P. classes while continuing to train at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center, already with her eyes on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“Can I push higher internationally? Absolutely,” Zeng told USA Gymnastics in a recent interview.

Her quest begins this coming weekend at the 2017 Rhythmic Challenge in Indianapolis, her first event since Rio.

“It’s a new cycle, and everyone has new routines,” said Zeng, 17. “Rhythmic Challenge has always been a testing ground to see where I am with my routines, and what I need to work on. My goal is to have clean elements and start getting into competition shape for the season.”

It’ll also be the first look at competition for Zeng’s North Chicago training mate Camilla Feeley, who served as the U.S. Olympic alternate for rhythmic gymnastics.

“Going into the 2017 season, I’m focusing on where I am in the moment and what I need to do to reach the next level of progress,” Feeley said. “I try not to think about past competitions or practices and just focus on the future.”

What the future holds for the U.S. in rhythmic gymnastics is unknown but exciting. Zeng has infused a new kind of energy in the discipline with a bronze medal at the 2014 Youth Olympics, then a sweep of the golds at the Pan American Games in 2015 and a record setting eighth-place finish at the 2015 World Championships.

“2016 was definitely a milestone in my 10-year long career,” said Zeng. “Not only at the Olympics, but all year long I felt increased pressure to perform consistently. There was more responsibility and higher expectations. As the season progressed, I think I became stronger and more mature.”

Zeng and Feeley have known each other for years and are just one month – exactly – apart in age. They call each other friends but are also friendly competitors. For Feeley, Zeng has been the standard in the recent past.

“Laura motivates me all the time,” she said. “She is very good at focusing during practices and performances. Seeing her work tirelessly is motivating for everyone who practices with her. Even if we are competing together, it never affects the fun we have outside of the gym.”

After winning her second-straight senior national title last June in Providence, Zeng was swept into the whirlwind that was the Olympics and all the activities that surrounded it – both before and after the Games.

“Competing in Rio was surreal,” she said. “Sometimes, I wasn’t sure if I was still dreaming. When I came back home, my high school held a parade for me, I got to meet President Obama, I performed on the Kellogg’s Tour and I shot a commercial. Actually, the mayor where I live invited me to be the grand marshal of the town parade, as well. I did not expect the amazing response I got back from my community, nor how busy I would be thereafter.”

After three weeks off, however, Zeng was back to training, specifically focused on the new Code of Points for rhythmic gymnastics for the 2017 season. Feeley spent much of the fall season adjusting to the new Code of Points, as well.

“Training this fall was different because the rules changed after the Olympics,” she said. “My routines are faster and more difficult than last year’s so my equipment handling takes more repetition. My goal for this competition season is to show fluid and consistent routines while really enjoying the performance aspect of rhythmic.”

While Feeley outwardly states that the 2020 Olympics are a goal for her, Zeng says she is trying to approach this cycle with a more proactive and healthy mindset. At just 17, she calls herself an “older” gymnast.

“I think I’m more aware of myself after last year,” she said. “Including what my capabilities are and what can distract me. I realize now that achievement is complex, and that positivity is powerful in keeping me on track. Mental strength is just as important as physical.”

Both athletes are busy with school and training and try to spend as much time as possible just being teenagers. Feeley has been swimming a lot, and trying to cook in her spare time.

“This is my busiest year yet,” Zeng admitted, however.

And it’s clear: The hard work is what sets them apart. Both nationally and – they soon hope – internationally.