RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today in our countdown to the Olympics in London this summer, we take a look at Jule Zetlin. She is the top-ranked rhythmic gymnast in the U.S. and she's headed for London with two goals: winning a medal for Team USA and more respect for her sport.
NPR's Marisa Penaloza has this profile.
MARISA PENALOZA, BYLINE: Rhythmic gymnastics barely registers in the U.S. and Will Ferrell's spoof of the sport in the comedy "Old School" didn't help.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CHARIOTS OF FIRE")
PENALOZA: Ferrell prances around on the mat with a red ribbon in his hand- athletic, he's not. And Zetlin doesn't find the scene too funny.
JULIE ZETLIN: People are like, do you run around with a streamer. Is that what you do? That's a joke. And I'm like, honey, that's not what I do.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PENALOZA: Rhythmic gymnastics has been an Olympics sport since 1984. In other countries the sport is highly respected. And Julie Zetlin wants to break stereotypes in the U.S.
ZETLIN: Rhythmic gymnastics is a beautiful sport, but it's also extremely athletic. You have to have crazy hand-eye coordination, 'cause you 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. And they, you know, you have to have all the ballet techniques and you have to have a lot of strength too.
PENALOZA: Zetlin tosses a green, seven inch ball about 20 feet up in the air, then she 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 beat.
OLGA KUTUZOVA: Second puff. Ready now?
PENALOZA: Zetlin began at just age 4, exposed to the balls, hoops, rhythms and juggling clubs used in rhythmic gymnastics early on.
ZETLIN: My mother was a rhythmic gymnast from Hungary and she found a rhythmic club and I just happen to love it. I would stay after my classes were over and I'd watch the older girls. You know, watching them was like watching a movie star to me. They were just the most beautiful athletes.
PENALOZA: Like many Olympic athletes, 21-year-old Zetlin has had setbacks, including knee surgery and a persistent lack of self-confidence.
ZETLIN: I had some coaches saying, she will never succeed and be a top gymnast. She doesn't have the abilities that you need.
PENALOZA: Zetlin's family, especially her former national champion mom, has played a huge role in her journey. Then, five years ago, she got what she needed. Her big brown eyes sparkle when she recounts the story. She and three teammates were training in Montenegro, the tiny Balkan nation in southeastern Europe. And on the last day, the head Russian coach made an announcement.
ZETLIN: I see one girl that has the potential to bring you guys the Olympics. And I was just dilly-dallying standing there, like 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?
KUTUZOVA: Stop it there. Better. Better, let's go again with the music.
PENALOZA: Zetlin and Kutuzova practice about five hours a day, six days a week here plus a daily cardio workout for endurance. The sport is demanding and quitting did cross her mind at times, but the sheer thought was enough to make her stay.
ZETLIN: Whenever I sometimes felt like I was struggling too much and it was too hard, and I would say I always knew that, well, if I quit or give up now, I'll definitely regret it. And I know living with that regret would be much harder than what I'm feeling right now.
PENALOZA: Listening to the National Anthem in London would be the best farewell, says Zetlin. She's retiring after the games.
Marisa Penaloza, NPR News.