UConn fan from Omaha, 16, is an elite gymnast

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Feb. 2—Lexi Zeiss was an 8-year-old fan looking up to and at Breanna Stewart as she visited the UConn women's basketball team's locker room following the Huskies' NCAA tournament Lincoln (Nebraska) Regional semifinal win over Brigham Young in 2014.

If another dream can come true for her, Zeiss will be walking alongside Stewart with the United States Olympic team at the opening ceremonies in Paris in 2024.

While still a true blue/bleed blue UConn fan, Zeiss has found her athletic calling in gymnastics where the 16-year-old Omaha native is at the senior elite level and a national team hopeful.

The 10th-ranked Huskies (13-4, 8-0 Big East) are in her hometown tonight for a Big East game against Creighton (15-5, 10-2) at D.J. Sokol Arena. Zeiss will be paying attention from afar as she moved to Champlin, Minnesota — a suburb of Minneapolis — six months ago to train with the Twin City Twisters club.

"I know they've had some injuries and it's been tough but they've always been my favorite," Zeiss said Monday. "My mom loves Tennessee so we're going to have a friendly beef going when they play Sunday."

Zeiss will actually be in Columbus, Ohio to compete in the Buckeye Classic.

This is her life now. She played every sport she could as a youngster until at age 9 she committed herself to gymnastics and the sacrifices that came with it. She trains for about 30 hours per week.

"It's been totally worth it," Zeiss said. "I know what my goals are in gymnastics and to reach them this is what I have to do. My parents always made sure I had the experiences outside it growing up whether that was in sports or in school.

"I've had great support from my parents, my friends, my coaches, the administrators at the schools I attended. I couldn't have done this without all of them."

Through middle school and the beginning of high school in Omaha she had half-day schedules where she would attend classes in the morning, take her other classes online, and train in the afternoon.

She was an honor student at Westside High School before heading to Minnesota and being home-schooled through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln High program.

"Gymnastics aren't forever," Zeiss said. "When you're older you use your brain more than you do gymnastics so it's important to me that I do well in school."

The 4-foot-11 standout hopes to be a pre-med student with an emphasis on dermatology while competing at the Division I level in gymnastics when she gets to college after graduating high school in 2024.

"I want to be the next 'Dr. Pimple Popper,' " Zeiss said with a laugh, referencing The Learning Channel show of the same name.

She earned junior elite status in February 2020 at a qualifier in Las Vegas, but saw her chance to compete at her new level stopped as events were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She refused to be stopped from moving forward.

"I didn't know what was going to happen, if I'd get the chance to compete at the elite level," Zeiss said. "But I needed to push through that and I set my goal to become a senior elite in 2021."

In January she qualified for the 2021 Nastia Liukin Cup, named for the 2008 Olympic all-around champion, held in Indianapolis in late February by winning a Level 10 event. Eighteen of the top gymnasts in the country competed and she finished fourth overall, second on the balance beam.

Later in January, she qualified as a senior elite at the Simone Biles International Invitational and Elite Qualifier, named for the most-decorated gymnast in history, in Houston, Texas.

In April, Zeiss competed against the six Team USA members — Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum. MyKayla Skinner, and Jade Carey — who took part in the Tokyo Olympics at the American Classic.

"Was I intimidated? I was absolutely intimidated, star struck to be honest," Zeiss said. "I did a rotation with Suni Lee. But being there, knowing I was good enough to be there, that was insane. I'd look around and be like, 'Whoa, this is real.' "

She was the youngest competitor at the GK Classic a month later and rotated with 2016 Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez, who is her role model.

Then in the fall she moved to Minnesota. She trains at the same gym as McCallum, who now competes at the University of Utah. She also takes a ballet class in nearby Eden Prairie, where UConn sophomore Paige Bueckers grew up.

"I'm never alone here," Zeiss said. "My parents go back and forth from Omaha. They have a place here and we make sure we have plenty of family time. And my teammates, friends, coaches ... Everyone here is amazing. I never thought I'd get this kind of opportunity to train hard and live my dream."

Last week she was among 22 gymnasts who took part in the first USA national team camp of the year in Katy, Texas and it gave Zeiss the chance to show her skills to the USA coaching staff. Later this month she'll compete at the Winter Cup in Frisco, Texas, which will be a selection meet to put together a USA team to compete in Germany.

In July she'll take part in the American Classic and US Classic with the hopes of qualifying for the United States Championships in August.

She also has plans for the first week of April and that's to watch UConn play in the NCAA Final Four being held at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

It was eight years ago she went to Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln to watch the Huskies play. Her favorites, she told a UConn supporter, were Stewart and UConn coach Geno Auriemma. That supporter was Auriemma's wife Kathy. So after the win she and then-athletic director Warde Manuel accompanied Zeiss to the locker room where she met the Hall of Fame coach and his players, took pictures with the team, and had them sign her game program.

She said it was the best day of her life.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Zeiss said. "I was just in awe of everyone."

Two days later, UConn beat Texas A&M to advance to the Final Four in Nashville, where the Huskies defeated Stanford and Notre Dame to go 40-0 and win the second of four consecutive national championships.

"Meeting them absolutely had an impact on me," Zeiss said. "To see and to be around these high-level athletes made me think that it was possible for me to set goals and reach them if I worked hard enough like they had.

"It's still one of the best days of my life."

For coverage of all sports in the JI's 18-town coverage area, plus updates on the UConn women's basketball team and head coach Geno Auriemma, follow Carl Adamec on Twitter: @CarlAdamec, Facebook: Carl Adamec, and Instagram: @CarlAdamec.