Zeng, Griskenas lifted U.S. rhythmic gymnastics to historic heights in 2017
posted on 11/21/2017

© John Cheng

By Nick McCarvel

Over three days and through 11 competitive routines at the 2017 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Pesaro, Italy, in early September, U.S. gymnast Laura Zeng had precisely zero drops.

The three-time U.S. champion was most proud of that impressive fact, and it was another shining example of an American rhythmic program that has progressed to be one of the best in the world over the last decade.

Zeng, 18, would finish sixth in the all-around and – along with teammate Evita Griskenas – become the first U.S. team to send at least one athlete to all four event finals at Rhythmic Worlds for the first time… ever.

“Americans are becoming more prominent on the world stage,” Zeng told USA Gymnastics in a recent interview. “Being one of five countries this Worlds with two individual gymnasts in the top 12 [Griskenas finished 11th], and having gymnasts in all the event finals, those are historical accomplishments.”

Historical, indeed, but also not from out of nowhere: This is a national program that has been building itself up in the recent past to become a global player, piece-by-piece, bit-by-bit.

“This Worlds proved that the efforts, hard work and patience of 10 years of developmental work continues to come to fruition,” said Caroline Hunt, the rhythmic program director for USA Gymnastics. “It is really hard to be patient and trust in a process that takes so much time, sacrifice and perseverance amidst real triumphs and missed opportunities, and yet the growth that has come from that process was on display in Pesaro.”

Four years ago, the U.S. had qualified two rhythmic gymnasts for the all-around finals in 2013, when Jazzy Kerber and Rebecca Sereda made it that far. Zeng’s sixth-place finish was a U.S. record at Worlds, and her shared coach with Griskenas, Natalia Kilmouk of the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in greater Chicago, believes the pack mentality is pushing them forward.

“It is not only Evita (pushing Laura) but so are several other very strong gymnasts,” she said. “When you have a strong team, it always makes you work harder, smarter and better.”

On the success of Zeng and Griskenas at Worlds, Kilmouk added: “I have only two feelings: Proud for my country to be in the top and proud and happy for the gymnasts that they performed at their best under pressure.”

While Zeng was making her second consecutive appearance at Worlds (she was also the lone rep for the U.S. women at the Rio Olympics), Griskenas was there for the first time, and – along with her all-around 11th – she finished seventh in ribbon and eighth in hoop.

© John Cheng
“It was an exciting and new experience that I would love to repeat,” Griskenas said. “I always expect strong performances (from myself) as I know that I am prepared and have worked hard for moments like these. When I walk out onto the carpet, I know that I represent Team USA and do not have any room for hesitation.”

There has been little hesitation from Zeng, as well, over the last three years as she has solidified her spot as the best rhythmic gymnast in the U.S. She said she always expects “clean, consistent execution” from herself no matter where she is competing.

“There is no difference no matter how prominent a competition,” she explained, going on to say that podium placement is not of her concern, either.

But followers of the sport will take note of her slow and steady climb up the world ranks. And while Griskenas’ rise has quickly followed Zeng’s, Laura said her competition is always fiercest with the person she knows the best: Herself.

2017 saw a new Code of Points introduced by FIG for rhythmic gymnastics, which both Americans noted they will continue to be working on and paying close attention to. Hunt sees this past Worlds as a reason to be proud of the hard work over the last few years, and hopes to stay the course for what is to come – both towards the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and beyond.

“The consistency and focus together with the high level of preparation is a real tribute to our gymnasts and their coaches and the entire staff committed to this process,” Hunt explained. “The athletes’ ability to handle the competition so professionally and consistently was a dream realized for the U.S. – their historic results were merited by that kind of work on the field of play. It is impressive and, hopefully, inspiring to everyone to work harder, reach higher and realize that the road to the top is really challenging but so rewarding when one is able to show the best possible version of herself when it matters the most. That is the real success.”

Griskenas, who turns 17 in December, said she is “lucky” to train at North Shore alongside Zeng, as well as a handful of other elite rhythmic gymnasts, including Olympic alternate Camilla Feeley and Lili Mizuno, the four gymnasts all placing in the top five at this year’s USA Gymnastics Championships.

But recite podium finishes and numbers to Zeng, and she looks right through you: She’s focused on the process, an approach that seems to trickle down to the rest of the U.S. rhythmic athletes and – through much of the program’s improvement in the recent past – is working.

“I strive to continue to improve and find out who I am on the carpet,” Zeng said. “If my gymnastics career has taught me anything so far, it's to never make placements or podium my priority.”

The Rhythmic National Team Camp will take place next late January in Lake Placid, N.Y., giving the athletes an off-season of sorts to continue to adjust to the new Code and make another charge at improving their skills and routines. The USA Gymnastics Championships will be held early next July in Greensboro, N.C., while Sofia, Bulgaria, will host the 2018 World Rhythmic Championships.

“Whether or not the U.S. has become and can sustain as a top program in the world, only time will tell,” a matter-of-fact Zeng said. “For me personally this year, it is about searching and exploring my own style.”

It’s an approach her coach appreciates.

“Laura has grown as a person and as an athlete and she is now at a different level of work and management of the physical and mental training,” Kilmouk explained. “We understand each other very well at this stage.”

No doubt 2017 has been an encouraging year for the program overall, and you most clearly can feel it reverberating out of the energetic Griskenas, still buzzed from Worlds – and hopeful for what’s to come next.

“[Worlds] made me so proud for our country!” she said. “It just motivates me to work even more and makes me excited to see what the future has in store. I love performing, and I can’t wait to have fun and show myself again and again.”

And American fans of the sport can’t wait to see it again and again – and the success of the program on the world stage.