When it comes to her sport, Julie Zetlin is accustomed to confusion. She is used to having to explain that hers is the other kind of gymnastics—not the kind with the balance beam, the uneven bars, and the vault, but the kind with the balls, hoops, and ribbons. She accepts that in America, rhythmic gymnastics is still the lesser-known, misunderstood stepsister of standard gymnastics, and that it’s unlikely to land her on the front of a Wheaties box. It is, however, the sport that has brought her here to London for the Olympics, and that is already a major win for the 22-year-old Maryland native.
At the last Olympics in Beijing, the United States didn’t field a team in rhythmic gymnastics. The national governing body felt no one was good enough to compete with the Russians and the Eastern Europeans, who have dominated the sport since its inception. Julie has spent her young life trying to change that perception—and next week she’ll have her chance.
She is a Bethesda girl through and through. Her family’s house, which sits just east of the intersection of River Road and Nevis, is close enough to Burning Tree Elementary School that as a child, Julie walked the route every day. Her mom is a private aerobics instructor; her dad is a sales manager at a local Mercedes dealership. What’s more Bethesda than that?
But Julie’s existence was hardly that of a typical Montgomery child. By age 11, she was already spending four to six hours at the rhythmic gym each day. She was slated to attend Pyle Middle School and Walt Whitman High School—a zoning classification that normally makes parents and real estate agents in Montgomery County drool. But Julie would only attend those schools briefly. The demands of her sport were too intense.
After a semester at Pyle, Julie’s parents succumbed to the realization that given her training schedule, home-schooling was the only viable option. It wasn’t a decision they arrived at lightly. The family always hoped Julie would be able to balance her athletic commitments with a conventional teenage existence. So did she. In fact, a few years later, at age 14, she took one more swing at a normal school life. By this time she was already a decorated member of the US national team, but she decided to enroll at Whitman for her freshman year of high school. She tried desperately to juggle her myriad responsibilities and assume the life of a normal teen. She would ask teachers to assign her work in advance so she could take it with her when she traveled around the world for competitions. It worked for a while, but not quite well enough. She didn’t return for sophomore year. It turns out when you’re a world-class athlete, “normal” is a pipe dream.
But Julie says, “I don’t regret one thing. I missed a lot, but I also missed a lot of the drama—the cliques, the bullying. I find it so disgusting.”
While her friends were navigating the complexities of high school, she was digging in at the gym. It wasn’t long before she was turning heads on the world stage.
Some would argue that Julie’s success as a rhythmic gymnast can be traced to the fact that at least a little of that Eastern European greatness is etched in her DNA. Julie’s mother, Zsuzsi, was born in Hungary and was that country’s junior national gymnastics champion in the 1970s. Still, when Zsuzsi enrolled Julie in her first standard gymnastics class at age four, it was with no expectation that she would pursue it at a high level. Zsuzsi just wanted her daughter to have a physical activity. But when Julie got her first glimpse of the rhythmic gymnasts on the other side of the complex and saw how their bodies differed from the muscular, compact frames often associated with conventional gymnasts, she was instantly mesmerized. “I just remember that my first impression of them was that they were these beautiful, tall, statuesque girls, and I wanted to do exactly what they did,” she says.
Perhaps the wisest move in Julie’s development as a gymnast was the one her mother didn’t make. In spite of her own success in the sport, Zsuzsi Zetlin resisted the urge to coach her daughter herself, instead placing Julie in the capable hands of Olga Kutuzova. The highly respected Russian coach immigrated to Maryland more than a decade ago and now runs the Capital Rhythmics Club in Darnestown, where Julie trains. “My mom was very smart about that,” Julie says with pride. “She’s not like one of those stage moms. She really just put me in the hands of the coaches, and she was there to support me.”
It’s hard to argue with the results (are you listening, overbearing tennis parents?). Julie won the all-around title at the 2010 US national championships. From there she went to the 2010 world championships and became the first American rhythmic gymnast to advance to the finals there in nearly a decade. She returned to the worlds again in 2011, and as the top US finisher she earned a spot on the US Olympic team bound for London.
The celebration was not as exuberant as you might expect.
“Honestly, it was minimal. They day I got the news, I had to go to my knee doctor in Baltimore to get an injection, and then I had to go straight to practice. So it was like any other ordinary day for me,” Julie says.
She expects upward of 20 friends and family members to travel to London to watch her compete. Many of those who can’t make the trip attended a sendoff party last week at her father’s car dealership in Arlington.
As for Julie’s goals at these games, some would call them realistic; others might call them downright muted. When asked if she dreams about winning a medal, she answers bluntly, “No.”
“Honestly, I’m satisfied already qualifying for the games. With the judging in this sport being very subjective, the champions are always from Russia, Ukraine—those are always the medal contenders, and I don’t think that will change,” she says. She pauses briefly, then adds, “At least it won’t change for now.”
By the way, if you’re feeling sorry for Julie over all she sacrificed during her school years to become an Olympian, she wants to make sure you don’t waste too much of your pity on her. When I asked if she regretting not being able to go to the Whitman High School prom, she stopped me. “Oh, I went to the Whitman prom. I went to the Walter Johnson prom, too.”
Final score: Having your cake: 1. Eating it, too: 1.
Editor’s Note: The Washingtonian’s Brett Haber is in London as one of the announcers for NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. You can contact him there via Twitter @bretthaber.