© Tom Theobald

By Nick McCarvel

If Laura Zeng makes the Olympics and makes it onto TV – and there is a strong possibility of that – the top rhythmic gymnast in the U.S. will have to be fast… with her words.

“My friends are definitely all very excited for me,” Zeng, 16, tells USA Gymnastics. “But every one of them has told me that I have to give them a shout out. The list is long. Very long!”

On the last Wednesday in April, Zeng took time out of her own long to-do list to appear alongside fellow U.S. Olympic hopefuls at the 100 Days countdown ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. There was no time for shout outs for the Chicago-area native, who appeared in the morning on NBC’s TODAY Show, saw First Lady Michelle Obama speak, did a cluster of interviews with reporters and then got changed and got ready, performing in Manhattan’s Times Square in a Team USA demonstration.

“It’s all surreal,” Zeng says, New York City buzzing around her. “You see all the media stuff on TV, all the excitement for the Olympics and then when you’re right in the middle of it. It’s like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m here.’”

Modest as she may be, Zeng has established herself as the leading U.S. rhythmic gymnast. A bronze medalist at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in the all-around, Zeng won both the Pan American Games (with a sweep of the five available gold medals) and USA Gymnastics Championships last year. Her eighth place finish at the World Championships is the highest by an American rhythmic gymnast ever, and she helped the U.S. qualify an Olympic spot for Rio.

“Have I thought about it? Well of course!” Zeng laughs, speaking of the possibility of going to Rio. The rhythmic spot for the U.S. will be named after the USA Gymnastics Championships June 8-13 in Providence, R.I.

“My hopes are to do my best,” Zeng says about Providence. “I don’t want to think of anything else but just doing my best and doing my routines clean, with full expression and full power. I want to get as much out of them as I can.”

Three out of her four routines this year are new (her hoop she hasn’t changed), including a jazzy ball routine to Jennifer Hudson’s “Feeling Good.” In her two World Cup appearances so far this season, she has finished inside the top 10 in all of her disciplines, including seventh in the all-around in March in Pesaro, Italy.

“My level is going up as time goes on,” says Zeng, who competes later this week at a World Cup stop in Minsk, Belarus, her last competition before heading to Providence.

“I’m definitely not anywhere near my best – I’m not anywhere near where I want to be – but I am glad that I’ve had those two competitions to kind of chart things out, make changes if we need to, and just keep on working hard.”

Hard working is something those around Zeng are certain she is. It’s one of the three characteristics she uses to define herself (diligent and “a perfectionist” are the other two), as well.

“She motivates herself, and we just want her to do her best,” says her mother, Lily. “I think the closer we get to Rio, the harder it is for Laura. She puts a lot of pressure on herself, but she wants to do things perfectly. I’m so proud of her. She has surprised us with her success, too.”

But Laura’s results have been no surprise to fellow national team member and close friend Serena Lu, who has known Zeng for more than five years.

“The best thing about Laura is that she is extremely supportive of everyone on the team,” says Lu, who lives on New York’s Staten Island. “She has really enjoyed [the success], but she’s also so humble about it; she doesn’t brag. To me, that is so admirable… I can’t even explain it. She knows that that there is plenty of room for improvement.”

On her whirlwind 100 Days appearance in New York City, Zeng got a special visit in Manhattan from Lu, the two heading out from Laura’s Midtown hotel for quick sandwiches and a scoop of ice cream. Zeng told Lu all about the interviews and activities, but she also wanted to see more of New York, too.

“Laura seems so quiet and well-composed, but she is a total ball of energy,” says Lu, who will compete in Providence, as well. “It’s something I really love about her: After practice, she’s always looking for a new adventure. She wants to explore whenever, wherever.”

Seemingly a next great place would be to explore is Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics, a place that Zeng admits to knowing little about. (“I watched the animated movie Rio, does that count?”)

Midway through our interview in Times Square, Zeng couldn’t help but look up, lighted screens all around her with Team USA logos, a video playing of Michelle Obama’s earlier appearance.

“Look at where we are right now! This is just more motivation for me to do my best at Nationals,” she explains. “If I’m lucky enough to qualify, I would want to take in everything Brazil has to offer… it would be a totally new continent for me.”

And she won’t forget her shout outs, either.