July 20, 2015 / 8:09 PM / 2 years ago

Rhythmic gymnast Zeng becomes Pan Am Golden Girl

TORONTO (Reuters) - Laura Zeng was crowned the Pan American Games ‘Golden Girl’ and a future rhythmic gymnastics star on Monday as the 15-year-old American completed a sweep of individual events to bring her gold medal haul to five.

Laura Zeng of the United States competes in the rhythmic gymnastics ribbon final during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Toronto Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Even without the presence of the sport’s super powers Russia and Belarus, the American teenager marked herself as a potential future Olympic champion, taking gold in the all-around and all four individual apparatus finals, ball, club, ribbon and hoop with style and authority.

”That (Rio Olympics) is such a huge dream of mine and it is always going to be there in the back of my mind,“ Zeng told Reuters. ”I hope next year I can make it there but right now it is one step at a time and (I am) focusing on my next competition.

“The world championships is one of the (Rio) qualifications so that is another big goal of mine.”

Zeng announced her arrival by taking bronze in the individual all-around at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. She made her senior level debut in February and has climbed to 17th in the world rankings.

Added to the Olympic program in 1984, the sport has been dominated by Eastern Europe nations. Russia, Belarus and Ukraine have won every gold, silver and bronze in the all-around competition since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Canada’s Lori Fung remains the only North American to have stood atop the all-around podium, taking gold at the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

It is an oversight Zeng, a remarkably composed and mature high school sophomore, plans on correcting.

Training at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center outside of Chicago, Zeng works with Belarusian and Bulgarian coaches Natalia Klimouk and Angelina Yovcheva while her routines are choreographed by Russians and some of her costumes are designed by her sister.

To beat the best, Zeng works with the best, regularly making trips to Moscow for training camps with the Russian national team.

“They (Russia) are the best in the world and I have learned so much and gotten so much feedback,” said Zeng, whose interests turned from Chinese folk dance to gymnastics at the age of seven. “Every two or three months we go there for a couple weeks.”

”I love the sport so much. Chinese dancing has given me some of my style.

“Three for four years ago when I started doing well and I saw older gymnasts around the world and I thought, ”Wow this is how far I can go and I just want to get there“.”

Editing by Gene Cherry

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