It's already been a great Olympics for the U.S. women's team between the gold medal in team competition and Gabby Douglas's gold medal in the individual all-around. There will be more chances for Douglas and the U.S. team alike to pick up medals in the individual competitions, but there's still another entirely different gymnastics competition that goes mostly under the radar.
I'm talking of course about women's rhythmic gymnastics. The unheralded dance-driven cousin to artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around qualification rounds will take place on August 9.
Rhythmic gymnastics is very different from the artistic gymnastics that NBC shows on nearly every primetime broadcast. Rhythmic gymnastics involves individuals or teams performing a routine while manipulating an apparatus (e.g. hoops, ribbons, ropes). The sport combines elements of ballet, gymnastics and dance.
Although there is both a team and individual competition, U.S. fans will likely only pay attention to the individual competition. This is because the U.S. failed to qualify for the team portion, although oddly enough one U.S. athlete did. This is Julia Zetlin, the lesser-known sixth member of the U.S. women's team.
Zetlin does not train with the U.S. team, though. Instead she works out four or five hours a day in a school gym near her hometown of Bethesda, Maryland. There she receives training from established Russian coach Olga Kutuzova, who has coached her since she was nine years old.
It's been 12 years since then, and Zetlin is finally living out her Olympic dream. She has qualified as a soloist and will be the only U.S. gymnast involved in rhythmic competition. This is even more amazing considering that Zetlin receives zero funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee and she essentially has to pay out of her pocket for the expensive funds of her sport.
So now that she's here in London, could Zetlin actually contend for a medal? She did, after all, win three gold medals at the 2011 Pan American Games. To win an Olympic medal would obviously be a great accomplishment for her personally, but it could also finally bring some more attention to the sport in the U.S.
Realistically, though, a medal is very doubtful for Zetlin. Russia has absolutely dominated rythmic gymnastics ever since its inception with six gold medals, which is more than other country has total medals. With only two athletes allowed per country, it's safe to expect that Russian gymnasts Evgeniya Kanaeva and Alexandra Merkulova will finish in some order as the top two.
Zetlin seems to know this and she's sort of taken a realistic approach. She hopes that her presence at the Olympics can help to "up the game" for U.S. rhythmic gymnastics. She explains her position further in a recent Washington Post piece.
"I'm just trying to improve my sport and help improve our girls - make them want to work harder and work longer," Zetlin said. "Too many quit too early and don't get anywhere."
Hopefully Zetlin can do her part and actually get some recognition for all the work she's put into her sport. The individual qualifications take place on August 9 at 7:00 a.m. EST and will be live-streamed on NBC. If you're up that early, consider watching and becoming more familiar with a unique form of gymnastics that could really use more U.S. exposure.