The first U.S. contender for rhythmic gymnastics in eight years, Julie Zetlin is representing America in a sport that combines motion, grace and athleticism for a visually stunning display of showmanship.
For a lot of people, rhythmic gymnastics can be summed up by Will Ferrell’s 30-second ribbon-twirling performance in "Old School."
The sport is an uncommon variation on something already far less popular in the U.S than Eastern Europe. It wasn’t even in the Olympics until 1984, nearly a century after the birth of the modern Games.
That hasn’t stopped Bethesda, Md., native Julie Zetlin from working her way all the way to the London Games. But it’s not a gold medal she’s after when she opens competition on Thursday.
Zetlin will be the first to admit that a gold medal may not be within her reach. The sport has long been dominated by Eastern Europe. Since its Olympic start in 1984, 11 gold medals have been awarded in rhythmic gymnastics. Six of them have gone to Russia, and another combined three for Ukraine, the Soviet Union and the Unified Team (a team at the ’92 Games made up of 12 former Soviet states).
The U.S. has never medaled in any fashion in rhythmic gymnastics, but has qualified for the Olympics in every Games, except for two since 1984. For Zetlin, steps in the right direction and promoting the sport within the U.S. are all she’s concerned with.
Zetlin’s mother, Zsuzsi, is a former Hungarian national champion in the sport and introduced a very high-energy Julie at the age of 4. The same year she appeared in a Welch’s grape juice TV commercial, sparking interest in a possible acting career.
But the gymnastics career took off fast. Eight years after taking up the sport Zetlin was near the top. In 2002 she competed in her first Junior Nationals in Cleveland, where she placed 12th all-around. In 2004 and 2005 she placed second all-around in the Junior Nationals in Nashville and Indianapolis.
Despite all of the time spent on the road as a teenager her home was always Bethesda. Zetlin spent thousands of hours training under renowned coach Olga Kutuzova at Capital Rhythmics in Darnestown, Md.
Kutuzova is about as good as they come in rhythmic gymnastics. She has been coaching the sport for more than 25 years and is widely considered one of the premiere instructors in the country. Her coaching resume includes multiple Russian gymnasts competing at the international level, a Coach of the Year award and, of course, Zetlin.
For one week each year the usual training regiments and long hours are forgotten as Capital Rhythmics hosts Capital Challenge. To the small, and often distant rhythmic gymnastics world, Capital Challenge is the face of the U.S. program. Each year more than 300 girls from 13 time zones and five continents travel to Darnestown to participate in what the gym calls “an all-American good time.” Capital Challenge has grown to be one of the largest and most popular competitions in North America.
The year 2010 was a big one for both Zetlin and Kutuzova. Zetlin won her first gold medal -- and her second. She placed first at the U.S. National Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships and at the Pan American Games. Back in Maryland, Kutuzova was awarded the Coach of the Year award by USA Gymnastics for best representing “sportsmanship, dignity and professionalism.”
The next year injuries took their toll. She tore her meniscus for the second time in her young career, and this time it took a long time to heal. It sidelined her for several events, most notably the 2011 VISA National Championships. This would have cost most people a shot at the 2012 Olympics, but not Zetlin.
All the other gymnasts had to qualify for the 2011 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships by performing in earlier tournaments, but at the time Zetlin had the highest U.S. rank, and the highest World Cup rank. This allowed her to make her way on to the team through a petition process. She had to prove that her knee was healthy and that she was up to her usual level of performance -- and she did.
Not only did Zetlin make the team coming off an injury without competing, but in September she went on to have to best finish of any North American at the 2011 Rhythmic World Championships. This put her in top contention for the wild-card spot for the 2012 Olympics. Again, Zetlin came from behind -- in February 2012 the International Gymnastics Federation awarded the spot to Zetlin.
At 21 Zetlin is far older than the majority of her competition -- most of them retire before turning 20. She even goes as far as to call herself the “grandma” of the sport. Apparently the popular notion that we get wiser with age is true in this case -- the 17-year veteran of the sport is the U.S.’s sole shot at a medal.
But what happens after the Olympics? By the next Summer Games in 2016 in Rio, Zetlin would be 25 -- a practical dinosaur in gymnastics terms. Zetlin has said that she plans to hang up the ribbon and retire after the London Games.
Seventeen years after her only acting gig, Zetlin might give acting (and college) another chance. She plans to go to school in California to study psychology, and pursue a career in acting. Being the (metaphorical) ambassador to the sport, Zetlin, plans to stay involved with rhythmic gymnastics doing choreography and a possibly sports psychology, but that’s all in the distant future.
For now there is one thing Julie Zetlin is focusing on -- the Olympics.