Zetlin wants first rhythmic gymnastics Olympic medal for U.S.
For Julie Zetlin, the Pacific Rim Championships serve as tuneup for the London Olympics
Tom Theobald / Courtesy of USA Gymnastics
Julie Zetlin with the ball at the 2009 World Championships in Mie, Japan.
Tom Theobald / Courtesy of USA Gymnastics
Julie Zetlin performs at the 2009 World Championships in Mie, Japan.
Julie Zetlin competes in the rhythmic gymnastics individual ribbon final competition during the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Julie Zetlin performs in the individual all-around rhythmic gymnastics qualifications during the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
"When I was little, almost nobody knew what it was," said Julie Zetlin, America's top rhythmic gymnast, who will be in Everett this week for the Pacific Rim Gymnastic Championships. "I would tell people that I was a rhythmic gymnast and they'd say, 'Oh, can you do back flips?' They had no idea."
But over the past decade, and with the help of every-four-years exposure from the Olympics, rhythmic gymnastics is beginning to catch on. The sport of rings, hoops, balls and ribbons is attracting more and more youngsters while, at the same time, building strength at the U.S. national team level.
Though skeptics might say it looks like a frolic, rhythmic gymnastics requires a combination of grace and athleticism, not to mention flexibility to the point of contortionism. Zetlin recently saw a brochure about the sport that called it "Poetry in Motion" and that, she decided, "is a good description for our sport."
"It's very athletic, and a lot of people don't give us enough credit for that," she said. "But it's also a beautiful art for me and for everyone who watches. You almost become an artist on the floor."
These days, she added, "I feel like almost everyone I talk to knows there are different kinds (of gymnastics), which is awesome. There's a huge difference from when I was little compared to now, and I think it's going to become even more popular."
Certainly Zetlin has a chance to give rhythmic gymnastics even greater exposure this summer when she represents the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. In a sport dominated in recent years by China and the nations of Eastern Europe -- Russians Yevgeniya Kanayeva and Daria Kondakova were 1-2 in the all-around at the last three World Championships, and Kanayeva is the defending Olympic gold medalist -- Zetlin is bidding to win America's first Olympic medal in rhythmic gymnastics. The sport made its Olympic debut at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
She received her Olympic spot by finishing first among competitors from North, Central and South America at the 2011 World Championships. The funny thing was, Zetlin had a disappointing tournament because of a knee injury and missed the all-around final (at the 2010 World Championships, she advanced to the all-around final).
But she atoned a few weeks later at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, winning gold medals in all-around, ball and ribbon, and a silver medal in hoop.
Immediately after last year's disappointing World Championships, Zetlin thought her Olympic dream "might be over," she said. "I'd worked very hard for four years, but I just wasn't in competition shape (because of the injury). But a couple of weeks later they had the Pan American Games, and if I'd been at the Worlds at that moment, I could've made it to the all-around finals, in my opinion. I just needed a few more weeks and I would've been in my top shape.
"The Pan American Games were kind of like a confirmation for me. Being the Pan American champion really proved that I did deserve to get that (Olympic) spot."
The 21-year-old Zetlin, who lives in Bethesda, Md., sees the Pacific Rim Championships as an important step in her journey to London.
"Each competition is a buildup for the Olympic Games," said Zetlin, whose mother, Zsuzsi, was a rhythmic gymnastics national champion in her native Hungary. "I have certain goals for each competition about how I want to perform, and my main goal for this competition and for the others to come is to hit everything consistently and to the best of my capabilities."
In the meantime, and in those moments when her thoughts drift, Zetlin finds it hard not to imagine the thrill of being a U.S. Olympian.
"The Olympic Games are the biggest, most prestigious competition for any athlete," she said. "Ever since I was little, the Olympics have been my ultimate goal and it's going to be an experience you never forget. But you're also going to have all these eyes on you, so there's definitely going to be some nerves. Honestly, if anyone tells you that they're not going to be nervous, they're lying.
"But I'm going to be so excited to represent the United States. Being there will be my dream come true. It's what I've been aiming for for the last six or seven years. It will be nerve wracking, for sure, but I think it will also be the best point of my career."