Laura Zeng
Photo: Kristie Kahns; Hair and Makeup: Andrea C. Samuels/Factor Artists

You’d be forgiven for thinking that rhythmic gymnastics is just about dainty ribbon twirling. “You could poke your eye out,” insists Laura Zeng, the 16-year-old Libertyville phenom who’s finally giving all that skipping and looping some stateside clout.

Eye poking is not something this fiercely precise athlete has to worry much about. After all, Zeng, who is competing in the Olympics this month, has already made history with a string of best-ever performances for an American in a sport that combines strength, acrobatics, and a Barnum & Bailey–worthy collection of props (rope, hoop, clubs, ball, and, of course, ribbon). Still, she wants you to know: Rhythmic gymnastics isn’t just about curlicues of fabric. “There’s a lot of athleticism and coordination,” says Zeng, who trains at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center in Deerfield.

Zeng’s achievements make her the Mia Hamm of a sport traditionally dominated by Russians. The two-time national champion placed eighth at last year’s world championships, the highest an American has ever finished, and in May she became the first U.S. rhythmic gymnast to medal at a world cup event, earning the bronze in both hoop and ribbon. If Zeng cracks the top 10 in Rio, it will be an Olympic first for an American in this sport.

“I’m definitely feeling a little overwhelmed and relieved to have reached this point,” Zeng says. Like any elite athlete, she has her superstitions: She always closes her eyes and visualizes her performances ahead of time, and she refuses to pick a favorite among her props. “I don’t want them to retaliate against me [when I do a routine].”

All the training and globetrotting leaves the rising junior at Libertyville High School little time for the usual teen stuff. (She often scarfs down dinner on the car ride to practice.) “I don’t get to go to every dance,” she says. “But if I get to go to my senior prom, I’ll be OK.”