© Mark Sims

When Laura Zeng was 7 years old, she competed in her first conference swim meet, winning all the gold medals in her age division. Her parents didn’t realize how athletically gifted she actually was until another mother came to congratulate Zeng on her success. The success continued when Zeng unexpectedly won the Junior Olympic rhythmic national championships in 2008. It was then that her parents realized she could be great.

Six years and two consecutive junior elite national titles later, Zeng is set to represent the United States at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, Aug. 16-28 in Nanjing, China.

But for Zeng, competing at the Youth Olympics is more than just a competition. It’s a chance to compete in front of her relatives and revisit her Chinese culture.

“It feels special to be able to compete in China where my heritage and the rest of my family is,” Zeng said. “The last time I saw them was when I was six. I’m looking forward to learning about and revisiting my Chinese culture.”

Apart from swimming, Zeng originally started out in Chinese dance. It was there where she was introduced to rhythmic gymnastics by a friend. Although it isn’t as much a part of her life as before, Zeng still works to incorporate the style into her gymnastics routines.

“We can see her emotional expressions from the Chinese dance trainings,” Zeng’s father, Tian, said. “We almost feel it is destined, and it is no accident that she made it to Nanjing.”

The initial reaction to the news that Zeng would represent the U.S. in China was one of a proud parent and the affirmation that all of Zeng’s hard work had paid off.

“It makes me very proud to represent the USA in the Youth Olympic Games,” Zeng said. “I was born and raised here, and to be able to show other countries that I represent the U.S. is a great honor and privilege.”

Zeng’s father added, “In her past eight years, she has spent 4-6 hours everyday, including many holidays and Sundays, working on her craft. We hope she could truly enjoy the competition and Youth Olympic Games social activities.”

Zeng won’t be taking this journey alone. Originally from China, her mother, Lily, tries to go back to visit her family there every year. With a heavy training schedule not unfamiliar to an elite gymnast, Zeng hasn’t been able to tag along. This trip to China will be different.

Whether it’s seeing her compete for the first time in person or watching her on TV, Zeng’s relatives are sure to tune in to her success.

“Nanjing in August will be hot and humid, so we are not asking relatives to come although some keep asking for it,” Zeng’s father said. “Part of the reason is because we are also expecting Chinese TV to do live broadcasts of all the rhythmic gymnastics competitions.”

Enjoying the experience and everything that comes with it is an important aspect. But when it all boils down, the Youth Olympics is a competition as well as a stepping-stone for bigger and better things.

“Learning from the experience and being able to participate in such a big event will also help me in whatever endeavors I try in the future,” Zeng said. “I hope to improve and become a world-class gymnast. I also hope to possibly qualify for an Olympics to represent USA again one day.”

Although she has ties to both China and the U.S., Zeng feels honored to once again represent the United States and “bring honor to the entire community of USA rhythmic gymnastics.”

“[I’m excited to perform] at an Olympic event, and see the other amazing sports and athletes from all around the world,” Zeng said. “I’ve always watched the Olympics on the TV, and I hope to get the Olympic spirit out of this experience.”