With Olympic places at stake, U.S. rhythmic gymnasts aim to shine at Baku Worlds
posted on 09/17/2019

© Ricardo Bufolin

Making a push for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was always part of Laura Zeng’s plan. But the closer it gets, the further the Games recedes into the background as Zeng and teammates Evita Griskenas and Camilla Feeley concentrate on the here and now.

“Here” is Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and “now” is this week’s Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships, where Olympic quota places -- those golden tickets to the Olympic Games -- are there for the taking.

The Olympic qualification process is so complicated that even the International Gymnastics Federation needed a seven-minute video to explain it fully, but what it boils down to is that the top 16 individuals in the all-around final in Baku will earn their nations the right to compete in rhythmic gymnastics competition at Tokyo 2020.

And for Zeng and Griskenas, who have the chance to earn Team USA two of those berths to the Games this week, that has meant narrowing their focus.

First thing’s first: to get into the top 16, a gymnast must first make the cut for the all-around final, finishing among the top 24 following the four physically and emotionally grueling days of qualification in which gymnasts perform one routine per day. That began Monday, and extends through Thursday.

“Olympic qualifications are kind of like a north star,” Zeng reflected following the U.S. women’s training at Baku’s National Gymnastics Arena earlier this week. “It’s something that we all aspire to, but something we can’t focus on. I think at the end of the day it’s just another World Championships. It’s just another competition, another time to shine.”

Griskenas, who warmed up for Baku by winning four gold medals at last month’s Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, is keeping herself grounded about the possibilities.

“You take it one step at a time. You deal with each day as an individual day and you don’t get too excited about what you’ve done,” she said. “People keep saying, ‘Oh, you did so well at Pan Ams, and what does that do for you?’ I feel like it’s a great push forward. It’s a great thing to have in my repertoire. But with that in my mind, I can’t keep focusing on Pan Ams. I need to focus on now.”

The American trio has other objectives in mind, anyway. Last year, Zeng, Griskenas and Feeley were seventh as a team at the World Championships, the best team finish in U.S. rhythmic gymnastics history. For Feeley, who took all-around silver behind Greskenas and completed the U.S.’s golden medal sweep in the individual competition at Pan Ams with her clubs victory, recent successes are a catapult to even greater things.

“I think that having that behind us and on our backs, we can move forward at Worlds and try to do even better,” she commented. “But it’s nice to have that confidence behind us. We expect to be able to give our maximum and to really show the crowd that not only do we enjoy it, but to make them enjoy it as well.”

There will be time to think about Tokyo. For the moment, Zeng, who plans to begin college at Yale in the fall of 2020, is also taking time to enjoy everything about what may well be her final turn on a World Championship stage. That’s the plan for now.

“We’ve all become more adaptable and we’ve really grown from our experiences, and I’d say that going into this Worlds, I’m more aware of myself, more conscientious, and more excited than ever to show what we’ve been working on,” Zeng said. “I feel like we have a lot of home energy, a lot of people supporting us. With all of that behind us, all of that experience, we’re really excited to show what Team USA is made of.”