A member of the U.S. National Rhythmic Gymnastics Team since 2003 when she was 12 years old, former Walt Whitman High School student Julie Zetlin had her sights set on competing at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.
The disappointment of failing to become just the second American rhythmic gymnast to reach the Olympics since 1996 nearly sent Zetlin, now 21, into early retirement, she said.
Unable to immediately walk away from the sport she’d committed her life to since she was 8, Zetlin decided 2009 would be her last season.
A tremendous performance at the 2009 World Championships in Japan — Zetlin was an alternate for the all-around final — changed everything.
“I always dreamt of being in the Olympics and I think the biggest thing [that kept me going] was that I knew if I walked away from something without reaching my full potential I would have to live with that regret and that regret would kill me,” Zetlin said. “I got all these comments from people from other countries about how the U.S. needs me, that we hadn’t had anyone represent us in the Olympics for so long. It started to become even more of a reality than I imagined.”
While the more well-known artistic gymnasts tend to peak around age 17, rhythmic gymnastics requires more maturity and elegance, Zetlin said. She had not yet reached her plateau.
Zetlin competed for the first time since undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her right knee in May, her second operation for the same condition, at the 2011 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships that took place Sept. 19-25 in Montpellier, France. She finished 35th in the all-around competition, the best of any North American.
The top 15 finishers in France earned an Olympic slot for their country. Five more athletes will qualify for the Olympics based on their results at the Olympics test event in London in January, according to the Olympics Sports Guide.
Zetlin’s performance in France garnered an invitation to that test event. She said she could also receive a wildcard based on her finish as the top North American at Worlds.
Zetlin, who is trying to become the first U.S. woman to reach the Olympics since Mary Sanders in 2004, will next compete at the 2011 Pan American Games, Oct. 15-18 in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Last fall Zetlin became the first American to final at Worlds and followed that up with a gold medal in the all-around competition at the Pan American championships.
Rhythmic gymnastics has been an Olympic sport since 1984, but goes fairly unnoticed in this country, Zetlin said. It combines the art of ballet, flexibility and strength, with the manipulation of various equipment including ribbons, batons, hoops clubs and ropes and requires a tremendous amount of athleticism.
“The frustrating thing is that people either don’t know about it here at all or just don’t respect it,” Zetlin said. “You go to Worlds in France and there’s an arena the size of the Verizon Center and it’s sold out, a packed stadium. I’ll go to the airport with my hoop and security will be like, “Oh, you’re a hoola hooper?” And they’ll just kind of laugh. I don’t understand what’s so funny, I just competed in the world championships.”