If you think competing as a world-class artistic gymnast is tough, try being a U.S. rhythmic gymnast, a sport dominated by Europeans since its inception. Julie Zetlin will set off to challenge the field when she represents America as a soloist at the London 2012 Olympics.
In February, the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) granted Zetlin a wild-card berth so she could head across the pond and compete. Make no mistake, this is a big deal for the U.S. rhythmic community. Mary Sanders was the last gymnast to participate in the Olympics in 2004. The U.S. completely missed the cut in 2008.
In a USA Today interview, Zetlin discussed her current situation. After first stepping into the gym at age four, now-21-year-old Zetlin no longer prepares like her international peers. She practices once a day at a Darnestown, Md. Catholic school gymnasium, working around the community program schedule which includes basketball and volleyball.
When she is not training her apparatus elements, turns and leaps, Zetlin spends a great deal of time cross training, giving up or postponing many things other young women take for granted, including college.
The rigors of pushing her body to do more than mere mortals could imagine often comes with a price. Zetlin must tread carefully as she tore her meniscus twice over the years. Many less-determined sportswomen might have given up, but not this sportswoman.
Facing all the superhuman demands that go with becoming a superlative athlete, Zetlin refused to walk away. Instead, she realized the need to readjust her program. Working smarter vs. harder has paid off.
At the 2012 Pacific Rim Championships, Zetlin made a comeback after the knee injury kept her out of the final all-around competition at last year’s Worlds. This time she took gold in the all-around as well as ribbon and ball.
However, Zetlin has an uphill climb to the medal stand. The sport's early roots were planted in Sweden, and the Soviet Union took it on formally in the 1940s. Since then, rhythmic gymnastics has enjoyed majority rule by European states.
Yes, the U.S. is lagging behind in the arena of experience, but win or lose, Zetlin will make her mark for her country and hopefully the future of the sport.