There’s still much ahead for goal-oriented Lexi Zeiss, an Omaha gymnast with a realistic shot at competing for the USA team at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. But there’s no mistaking 2022 as a breakthrough year for the 17-year-old phenom.
Between traveling to Brazil, being awarded a silver medal at last summer’s Rio de Janeiro Pan American Championships, and taking it up a notch by accompanying the USA team for the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Liverpool, England, last October/November, the year was huge. While at worlds, Zeiss earned a gold medal as an alternate with the USA team that captured its sixth straight world team title.
“I didn’t think it would turn out the way it did,” Zeiss said during one of her occasional returns to Omaha, where she truly feels at home. She’s currently training and completing her schooling in Minnesota. “It was a learning year, and [I was] trying to change how I looked to the national staff, change perspective, and get their eyes on me a little bit.”
She did just that with a Pan Am silver medal in the all-around—the floor exercise, balance beam, uneven bars, and vault, collectively.
“I think, for everybody around the world, [they were] putting me on the hypothetical world list and not thinking I was going to do what I did there and being able to beat some big names,” Zeiss said.
Throughout the year, Zeiss continued to flip, twist, and turn toward being invited to compete among the 10 elite USA gymnasts at the World Team Selection Camp last October for a spot on the USA roster of six.
“To even have a chance for this worlds team is unbelievable,” she said moments after the camp in suburban Houston had ended.
Unlike two opposing baseball teams who know the outcome after the last recorded out, Zeiss left the gym in limbo after the two-day trial. A three-person selection committee hashed out its decision a few hours before announcing that Zeiss would accompany the five other gymnasts. The next day, they were off to Liverpool.
Going into the trial, Zeiss said, “I definitely felt nervous.”
Regardless of Zeiss’s nerves, Twin City Twisters (Champling, Minnesota) coach Sarah Jantzi attested to the gymnast's immense progress in all facets through the year, deciding she was ready—physically and mentally—for the camp, even after upgrades to each routine were installed.
“[The camp] is probably the most high-pressured situation that you can be in,” said Jantzi, who traveled with Zeiss to Liverpool. “You’re trying to make a worlds team, which is basically an Olympic team in the off-year. The best athletes all over the world are at that competition.”
Jantzi shared a huge vote of confidence when mentioning Zeiss among the world’s best gymnasts. But from the Zeiss family's perspective, they’ve had too many other things to think about to allow themselves to grasp the enormity of Jantzi’s remarks. Balancing the demands of training an Olympics-caliber athlete with that of raising a normal teenager still connected to her friends at Westside High, wanting to attend the homecoming dance, and managing schoolwork—not to mention the demands of their own adult lives and jobs—has been a challenge.
The obstacles confronting the Zeiss family are in a sense broader than the 4-inch width of a gymnastics beam, and as delicate to manage as a gymnast’s ability to stay upright without falling.
Jess Zeiss and wife Dana have known since early on that having a daugher compete in elite sports would be a difficult road because of its demands financially as well as on her education. On the emotional side, the Zeiss parents dealt with the trepidation of Lexi’s transition from the Omaha Gymnastics Academy in Papillion to Minnesota in the summer of 2021. But Lexi convinced them it was necessary to step up her training.
The fact is, life for an elite gymnast is anything but normal. Nevertheless, the Zeiss parents have been all in.
Jess Zeiss, an investment banker, has since found a place to live and work from home in Minnesota, while Dana stays back in Omaha working as a nurse practitioner. At first, Jess was adamant about staying put in Omaha, but changed his mind when his daughter said something profound.
“My 16-year old daughter says, ‘Dad, you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Jess shared.
Having her father nearby has offered Lexi great emotional support, as has gaining a greater comfort level with other elite gymnasts.
“I remember watching them at the Olympics and being like, ‘Those girls are so cool,’” Lexi said.
These days, she counts seveal of those atheletes as friends. Their numbers are listed in her phone, and Facetime sessions are a regular thing.