Julie Zetlin is the United States' top-ranked rhythmic gymnast; she has already qualified to compete in London. And while she wants a medal from the Summer Olympics, she also wants more Americans to take her sport seriously.
In the United States, rhythmic gymnastics barely registers — and popular media has not been kind. Take Will Ferrell's spoof of the sport in the comedy Old School, in which the comedian prances around on the mat with a red ribbon in his hand:
In the scene from the film, Ferrell looks more silly than athletic — and Zetlin doesn't find the satire very funny.
"People are like, 'Do you run around with a streamer? Is that what you do? That's a joke,' " says Zetlin, 21. "And I'm just like, 'Honey, that's not what I do.' "
Zetlin has a sense of humor — she laughs about those comments. But she wishes people would see rhythmic gymnastics for what it is. Here's a video of one of her performances:
"Rhythmic gymnastics is a beautiful sport, but it's also extremely athletic," Zetlin says. "You have to have crazy hand-eye coordination, because you're tossing your equipment, and you have to catch it — not just in your hand, but in your back; in your shoulder blades; with your foot. Then, you have to have the ballet techniques. You have to have a lot of strength, too."
An artistic performance that mixes balls, hoops, ribbons and juggling clubs, rhythmic gymnastics has been part of the Olympics since 1984.
In February, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled its "Love Ribbons Forever" stamp to honor rhythmic gymnastics. In other countries, the sport is highly respected — Zetlin reports that in Europe, "you have rhythmic gymnasts on billboards like we have football and basketball players here."
Zetlin trains at a gym in Darnestown, Md. In a recent practice session, she tosses a green, 7-inch ball about 20 feet up in the air, then snakes her upper body forward, catching the ball with her arched back. Her coach, Olga Kutuzova, makes sure her movements are clean and to the music's beat.
"My mother was a rhythmic gymnast from Hungary, and she found a rhythmic club — and I just happened to love it," Zetlin says. "I would stay after my classes and I'd watch the older girls. I think watching them was like watching a movie star to me. They were just the most beautiful athletes."
So, she started her own training, at age 4. And like many Olympic athletes, Zetlin has had setbacks, including knee surgery and crises of self-confidence.
Julie Zetlin, who won a U.S. national title in 2010, trains with her rhythmic gymnastics coach Olga Kutuzova in Maryland.
Julie Zetlin, who won a U.S. national title in 2010, trains with her rhythmic gymnastics coach Olga Kutuzova in Maryland. Marisa Penaloza/NPR
"I had some coaches saying, 'She will never succeed and be a top gymnast — she doesn't have the abilities that you need,' " she recalls.
Then, five years ago, on the day after she turned 16, Zetlin got what she needed. Her brown eyes sparkle when she recounts the story.
She and three teammates were training in Montenegro, the tiny Balkan nation in southeastern Europe, with the national Russian team. The idea was to strengthen the best American rhythmic gymnasts. And on the last day of training, the head Russian coach made an announcement.
" 'I see one girl that has the potential to bring you guys the Olympics,' " Zetlin recalls the coach saying. "And I was just dillydallying, standing there, not even paying attention. She grabbed my arm and she said, 'This girl is going to make it for you guys.' And I was like, 'What?!' "
That prediction gave her the courage to keep going. Zetlin also credits her family, particularly her mother, a former Hungarian national champion. At the gym in her native Maryland, Zetlin and Kutuzova practice about five hours a day, six days a week, along with a daily cardio workout to build endurance.
The sport is demanding; Zetlin says quitting has crossed her mind at times — but the thought was enough to make her stay.
"Whenever I sometimes felt like I was struggling too much and it was too hard, I always knew that, well, if I quit or give up now, I'll definitely regret it," she says. "And I know living with that regret would be much harder than what I'm feeling right now."
Zetlin plans to retire after the summer games. She says that hearing the U.S. national anthem in London would be the best farewell to her career.