Amy Rosewater November 05, 2010
Photo: Amy Rosewater
Rhythmic gymnast Julie Zetlin is the top U.S. rhythmic gymnast in part thanks to her coach, Olga Kutuzova.
DARNESTOWN, Md. — To find the best U.S. rhythmic gymnast, you have to really look.
She is not training in a massive training facility with all of the latest and greatest exercise equipment. Rather, you can find her stretching with a handful of tweens in a Catholic school gym that is tucked far back off windy roads in Maryland.
There are school children running around in another part of the gym and only a curtain separates them. She is not far from the nation’s capital — just about 30 miles from the White House in fact. You’d never imagine this is the home of Capital Rhythmics and its hopeful to compete in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Make no mistake, however. Julie Zetlin, 20, is indeed the nation’s best rhythmic gymnast.
If there is a true amateur left in sports, Zetlin has got to be it.
“She’s not going to make money like the basketball players or even a scholarship like the artistic gymnasts,” said Olga Kutuzova, Zetlin’s coach. “But she still comes and trains. I don’t think in the 10 or 11 years we’ve been together that she’s ever missed a practice or even been late. She doesn’t do this because she will get something. She does it because she loves it.”
And though there is no major payout in the sport of rhythmic gymnastics, at least not in the United States, Zetlin certainly has paid her dues and she is starting to feel the payback.
At the 2010 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships, held at the Olympiysky Sports Complex in Moscow in late September, Zetlin became the second American to qualify for the all-around finals. Mary Sanders achieved that feat in 2003. But there is an asterisk that goes with that stat. Sanders was born in Toronto but had dual citizenship, allowing her to represent the United States. That makes Zetlin, born in Silver Spring, Md., the first American-born gymnast to qualify for the rhythmic all-around finals at the world championships.
Zetlin placed 23rd with 99.025 points, but the placement was secondary. The fact that Zetlin, the reigning U.S. rhythmic champion, made it so deep in the competition was the big prize.
“It’s all starting to kick in,” Zetlin said during her first practice since the World Championships. “I didn’t realize how big it was until I came back.”
As exhilarating as these last few months have been for Zetlin, she still has plenty of work cut out for her between now and the summer of 2012. Up next is the Pan American Championship Dec. 2-5 in Mexico, where she hopes to qualify the United States for a spot in the 2011 Pan American Games. There’s also the 2011 Visa Championships and 2011 World Championships, where the United States hopes to earn a spot for the Olympic Games in London.
But for the moment, she’s enjoying where she’s at: in the driver’s seat, a perfect position for Zetlin, whose father works at an automobile dealership.
So much of Zetlin’s story is a tale of good fortune. Part of that luck is that she happened to live near a gym that attracted the likes of a Russian coach.
Zetlin’s coach, Kutuzova, was born in Siberia and competed in her home country, and became an American citizen two years ago. She happened to visit the United States back in the mid-90s and met a coach from Maryland. They kept in touch and when the American coach got married and had a baby, she asked Kutuzova if she’d like to coach in Maryland.
“I didn’t know if I’d stay forever or just a year,” Kutuzova said.
Lucky for Zetlin, Kutuzova has been here ever since.
Born into a Russian culture that adores rhythmic gymnastics, Kutuzova is excited about how much Zetlin’s recent success is generating interest in the sport in the United States.
“We received so many phone calls and text messages,” Kutuzova said. “I couldn’t believe how many people were happy for her.”
Among the first people to make a congratulatory call, Zetlin said, was none other than USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, who yelled into the phone, “You did it, kid!”
To be able to achieve her feat in a country that loves the sport so much made everything even sweeter.
“The event was held in the arena for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and for the finals, it was sold out,” Zetlin said. “I tried to go see my parents afterward and it took me about an hour because people asked for autographs and pictures. I saw my dad and said, “Save me!’ and he said, ‘No. This is great!’”
Zetlin has never felt the same kind of love in the United States although she smiles when she tells one tale of her so-called fame. Her mother went to a local Starbucks and an employee recognized her. The employee’s daughter had gone to the same gym as Zetlin years back. The Starbucks barista whipped up a free Frappucino for the local star gymnast.
Zetlin was introduced to the sport by her mother, Zsuzsi, who was a rhythmic gymnast in her native Hungary. Zetlin’s father, Mark, was an outsider to the sport. A native of Alexandria, Va., he is a sales manager at a Mercedes dealership. Zetlin’s older sister, Sherri, also competed in rhythmic gymnastics.
“Sometimes it’s a one-sided thing from the parents,” Zetlin said. “That wasn’t the case with me. My mom was never like a stage parent. She wanted to see if I liked rhythmic gymnastics. I did and I wanted to keep with it.”
Zetlin admittedly was no natural, and knew not many people believed she had much of a future in the sport.
“Generally,” she said, “you look for flexibility and body type — tall and very skinny. It used to be what you see on a runway.”
When Zetlin started in the sport, she was short and muscular, seemingly built much more for powering over a vault than leaping after a hoop. But her secret weapon was her ability to perform.
The 5-6 Zetlin has a smile that can light up a gym. She also has the ability to jump better than most of her competitors. Although she claims not to be the most flexible (to the average person, however, she is quite flexible), she is quite a jumper and performs some of the most difficult leaps in the world.
“When Olga came here when I was about 8 or 9 she said, ‘I think she can surprise you guys,’ “ Zetlin said. “She never gave into the comments and she focused on my performance and my jumps.”
Zetlin’s trademark maneuver is called a turning switch leap in which she does a split jump turns and then adds another split. She can do this with each apparatus — the ball, the ribbon, the hoop and the rope.
“The audience always recognizes it and always claps,” Kutuzova said.
“She had a persona from a very young age and that is very important in rhythmic gymnastics,” Kutuzova said “You can have a gymnast who can do all the skills but has no personality so no one will watch. Julie had it from inside.”
Zetlin, who wears her dark brown hair pulled back in a bun and sports a blue bracelet with the word “Fearless” on it, trains about five hours a day. She usually arrives at about 3 p.m. and works until 8 p.m. In addition, she runs or swims and also squeezes in dance training. Following her trip to worlds, she spent some time in Los Angeles taking an acting class to improve her performance skills. In addition, she has spent some time in the summer training in Russia and has her routines crafted by a Russian choreographer.
Zetlin’s initial goal was to qualify for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. That plan was foiled and Zetlin gave herself one more season to go for the national crown. She placed third and immediately told her coach at the award ceremony, “This is my last competition. This is too much for me emotionally.”
Then her coach told Zetlin that she qualified for the world team.
“I did a complete 180 right then,” Zetlin said.
And she hasn’t turned back.
“I wanted to work and I was so motivated,” Zetlin said.
At the Visa Championships in Hartford, Conn., in August, she broke through and won the national title. She placed first in three of four events to claim the U.S. crown.
“I’ve been through so many ups and downs, and I was so nervous,” Zetlin said. “When I realized it was finally happening to me I started crying.”
Now she has her sights set on London.
“This is finally the time,” she said. “I just hope to compete clean routines.”
And with that, she smiled and resumed her training. Back in a world of obscurity for the moment, she hopes to emerge on a much bigger stage less than two years from now.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.