We had the incredible opportunity to chat with Laura Zeng, a Chinese-American athlete who competed in individual rhythmic gymnastics in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is a five-time U.S. National All-Around Champion and recently has transitioned from training full-time to becoming a college student at Yale University - no small feat.
Obviously, we're totally awe-inspired by Laura, and we were lucky enough to get to chat with her about how she handles it all - from her morning breakfast routine to the influence her Chinese heritage has on her gymnastics.
Do you have different morning routines when you are actively training versus during the ‘off-season’? (Do you have an off season?)
Slightly. When I’m actively training, things are a bit more streamlined. For morning practices, I tend to roll out of bed with just enough time to spare for a morning routine. During the off-season, I can slow it down and take my time, which isn’t always a good thing, productivity wise, but allows for a more relaxed pace. No matter what though, I always eat breakfast because I truly believe it’s the most important meal of the day.
What do you do to keep your mind focused on studying throughout the day?
Knowing I have other priorities motivates me to focus on class when I’m in class, or do gymnastics when I’m doing gymnastics. Basically, I don’t want all the eggs of my life in one basket.
When you're in a rush and don't have time to sit down for breakfast, what do you grab for a quick meal?
I always make time for breakfast! If I only have time to sit down for five minutes, then so be it. Coffee, carbs, and protein is the golden trio. I usually require some sort of hot food in the morning, but Yale also has great granola. So granola with coconut or Greek yogurt and some raspberry jam has slowly become a morning staple too.
Do you take days off to recharge?
Yes. Sometimes I need days to actively recharge, so I spend time outside or with family and friends. Other days I need a mindless recharge, which often involves movies, sleep, and a nice couch…. Or I do a combination of both. It all depends.
If you had to choose three foods that you couldn't live without, what would they be and why?
That’s a hard question... I think I'll just pivot to snacks. Fruit, popcorn and pretzels are my go-tos. Fruit, because it's so versatile and juicy. Popcorn because it can be light and airy, or buttery and salty for easy munching. And lastly pretzels, which I basically require now to satiate my tongue after I eat anything sweet - it helps balance my palate.
You have a busy, exciting life - do you still manage to find a sense of balance and calm in your day? If so, how do you achieve that?
Music and being outdoors. If I’m inside for too long, I start to feel stifled - for me, there’s literally no replacement for fresh air. As for music, it fills in all the gaps of my day, when I’m not in class or actively talking to friends. As much as I listen to the music, I sometimes feel like it listens to me, and is probably the closest I come to meditating. It can be hard for me to be alone with my thoughts, but music provides the space where I can come close.
Your parents came to the U.S. from China before you were born, and you started in Chinese dance and ballet before switching to rhythmic gymnastics at age 7. Did you incorporate your Chinese heritage into your rhythmic gymnastics practice, and if so, how has it helped you?
Chinese dance and ballet really sparked my love for dancing, and within rhythmic gymnastics I became known for it! I also learned how to do a butterfly jump in Chinese dancing, which then became my signature leap within gymnastics. So yes, the influence was definitely inherent. I also believe growing up Chinese instilled in me a certain work ethic and appreciation for discipline. Though these values can sometimes be hard to uphold, I think trying my best was and will always be in my DNA, and I’m grateful for it.