Laura Zeng allowed herself the fist pump.
It was a small departure for the normally cucumber-cool gymnast from the Chicago area who is generally not given to displays of emotion more excessive than a smile and a wave when exiting the rhythmic gymnastics carpet. But as she closed out a pressure-packed week of competition at the 2019 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, Zeng made an exception.
The almost involuntary movement of triumph came just after she hit the final pose of her ribbon routine. The exercise had been mesmerizing, an enchanted 90 seconds of sport-meets-art featuring the satin ribbon fluttering around Zeng, who infused the choreography with all the grace the 19-year-old has accumulated from years of serious training in both ballet and Chinese folk dance.
That exercise, her final event in an all-around final where Olympic qualification berths were at stake, gave Zeng a 10th place finish in the all-around, her fourth top-10 finish in as many years at rhythmic Worlds. More importantly, it guaranteed the United States would send two rhythmic gymnasts to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the first time since 1992 that the flourishing U.S. program will be represented by two rhythmic gymnasts at a Games.
So, the fist pump.
“I’m so proud of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go,” Zeng said earlier in the week. “Right now all I’m thinking is onward and upward, focusing on tomorrow, gathering up all the energy I have left and just going for it. It’s a big day, it’s a culmination and I’m just going to breathe, be calm and go forward.”
The top 16 in Friday’s all-around competition in Baku qualified their National Olympic Committees a place in the individual competition in Tokyo. With a personal best eighth-place all-around finish in Baku, Evita Griskenas and Zeng earned the USA two spots, the same as many of the powerhouse nations of the sport, including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Bulgaria.
Griskenas said she didn’t let previous success this season, including four gold medals at last month’s Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, detract from her focus. The goal in Baku was two-fold, she added: maintain a solid team ranking following the USA’s best-ever seventh-place team finish from 2018, and then earn those two Olympic berths.
Griskenas was on fire Friday, hitting all four of her routines solidly to total 83.000 points. Zeng, with 81.850, wasn’t far behind. In addition to the joy of a clean competition, a more tangible prize was in store for Zeng. In a special ceremony following the conclusion of the all-around competition, she was selected as the recipient of the Longines Prize for Elegance, a prestigious award bestowed by the Swiss watchmaker on the gymnast deemed to express the greatest amount of poise and personal elegance on and off the rhythmic carpet.
It’s the first time an American rhythmic gymnast has ever won the Longines prize, and the latest in a long list of accomplishments for Zeng, who also became the first U.S. gymnast to medal at the Youth Olympic Games, and still holds the record for the highest American all-around finish at Worlds.
Next up for both Zeng and Griskenas: more firsts, potentially in Tokyo next summer. “Each of us has had our own moments where we’ve done our best,” Griskenas said. “Now we want to surpass those moments and do even better.”