© John Cheng

By Hayes Gardner

DES MOINES – Training twice a day for six days a week can be tedious and grueling, but that’s the reality for 2016 Olympian Laura Zeng. During her training sessions, various things motivate the rhythmic gymnast – support from friends and family, the pursuit of excellence – but something else has motivated her of late. She recently saw “Hamilton: An American Musical,” and as she trains, a quip from the Broadway show sometimes pops into her head. “I’m not throwing away my shot.”

That phrase becomes a mantra for revolutionary Alexander Hamilton in the musical about the foundation of the United States, and it’s helped Zeng, who is competing in the USA Gymnastics Championships over the July 4th weekend in Des Moines.

Zeng, who graduated from high school last year, is in the midst of two gap years before she begins college at Yale. She’s working tirelessly to improve and feels that this current time period is her “shot” or her chance to reach new heights.

“It is my dream to reach my maximum,” she said.

Zeng is the defending rhythmic all-around champion at the USA Gymnastics Championships. But she didn’t simply win last year in Greensboro, she’s won each year since 2015 for an impressive four-straight titles. Winning for the fifth time in a row (the U.S. record is six straight) would be an “honor,” Zeng said, but it’s not what she’s keyed in on. Rather, she is hopeful that she can display just how hard she’s worked over the past year.

“I really just want to show what I’ve been working on,” she said. “That’s always my goal to have that reflect on the carpet. We work on so many things in practice, and I just love for that to translate to the audience.”

The audience at Wells Fargo Arena was treated to a strong showing by Zeng as she opened her weekend on Thursday by winning both the ball and hoop events in dazzling fashion.

Performing well at the event is extra special for Zeng, and not just because of her recent success. Because she competes internationally for much of the year, she cherishes the chance to perform in front of a home, American crowd.

“It’s always something to look forward to,” she said.

Zeng’s excitement and love for the event is obvious, and she pointed out that, with Independence Day and the U.S. women’s soccer team’s current success in the World Cup, it’s a special weekend.

“The U.S. women’s soccer team has been kicking butt in France,” she said. “So, I feel like the force is really strong with Team USA this weekend, you know, July 4th, so I feel like the USA is ready to show what we are made of.”

Zeng is not far from her home in Illinois, where she trains at the same gym as four other rhythmic gymnasts on the U.S. Senior National Team: defending U.S. ball champion Evita Griskenas, Karrine Denisova, Camilla Feeley and Lili Mizuno. The U.S. National Prep Group also trains at her gym.

Both Zeng and Griskenas, who finished second in both hoop and ball, are two of the most decorated rhythmic gymnasts in the U.S., and their success has pushed each of them to individually improve.

“I think it’s really good for both of us to have a companion for long practice days and also to cheer each other on,” Zeng said. “It’s really beneficial to have that relationship. And we’ve traveled a lot together, we’ve been through a lot together.”

Zeng has been working on perfecting the minutiae of her routines, and her biggest hope – bigger even, than the results – is to continue to exhibit that at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships.

“This is really my shot,” she said. “And I just want to showcase that.”