Four years ago, when Julie Zetlin fell short in qualifying for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, she thought it was the end of her Olympic dream.
Though she was just 17, she couldn’t envision four more years of training, conditioning and competition.
“I had no clue that I was going to go for another four years,” said Zetlin, a rhythmic gymnast from Bethesda, Md. “I was just laughing it off, saying there’s no way I’m going to be competing in 2012. But as each year got closer to 2012, I was getting better and higher ranked.”
Eventually, she thought, “I might as well go for it.”
Today, Zetlin is glad she did, after learning she officially earned a spot for the United States — and herself — at the London Games this summer.
Zetlin finished 16th overall at the pre-Olympic test event in January in London to essentially lock up the North American wild-card spot for the London Games.
She had to wait several weeks, however, for the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to announce that her wild card spot was official. The FIG’s decision came this past week.
The Olympic berth capped four years of improvement and perseverance for Zetlin.
Since 2008 — when no Americans competed in rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympic Games — Zetlin has won the 2010 U.S. championship, advanced to the 2010 World Championships all-around finals, was the highest U.S. finisher in September at the 2011 World Championships in France (35th in the all-around) and was the 2011 Pan American Games all-around, ball and ribbon champion.
Her drive to make the Olympic team appeared in jeopardy, however, when she tore the meniscus in her right knee in May 2011.
She had surgery and was forced to take a four-month break from training. When she did come back, just in time for the World Championships, she’d only had time to train about 10 days.
“I wasn’t feeling like 100 percent whatsoever,” she said. “I was feeling unsure my body would be able to handle it or all of a sudden give out. That’s what kind of happened at Worlds. The first half of competition went pretty well and then the second half I think I just wasn’t in competition shape, so it went kind of wrong for me.
“But it was enough to get high enough scores to get the wild card (to the Olympic Games) or be a top contender for it.”
Between September and January’s pre-Olympic test event, Zetlin’s strength and confidence improved through training and her Pan Am Games performance.
At the test event in London, she even broke out two new routines, in ribbon and hoop, and was pleased with the progress she’d made and the way she performed under pressure with an Olympic spot on the line. Aside from placing 16th in all-around, she was 12th in ball, 14th in clubs and 18th in ribbon.
“I actually was pretty pleased with the routines that I have that are new because I didn’t have any major mistakes,” Zetlin said. “Some of my stuff that I did in my routines were not shaky, but hesitant, so I didn’t have the full confidence I usually do with my old routines. My old routines are really solid. So I also have never felt this ready this early in the season.”
And that was before she won against a strong field at Colorado Springs two weeks ago.
Now, as she continues to train in hopes of peaking for the London Games, she believes her experience and mental toughness she’s developed in dealing with two knee injuries (her first was at age 15½) will be a plus.
“I’m feeling strong,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this ready and this strong this early in the season. Since I’ve been through so much with different circumstances and injuries, I think I’m able to deal with every kind of situation.”
She’s now working on improving her stamina. She’s added cross-sport workouts, such as boxing and kickboxing, to her usual fitness regimen that also includes swimming.
Her schedule this year will include the Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships in March in Seattle, World Cup events in April (Italy) and May (France), the U.S. championships in June and then a World Cup event in Belarus before the Olympic Games.
At 21, Zetlin is focused only on the Olympic Games. She put off college to fully concentrate on training for her last Olympic shot, before she moves on “to other things in life.”
Zetlin, whose mother, Zsuzsi, was a rhythmic gymnast in Hungary, said she’s pleased to have performed so well in London not only for herself, but for the U.S. team and other American rhythmic gymnasts.
Because the United States did not earn a spot in the Beijing Games, Zetlin believed it was important for an American compete in the 2012 Games.
“It would really help our program,” Zetlin said. “It will help the younger girls to try to work harder and go for it, because it’s not easy.”
After all, Zetlin says many people — those who don’t truly know the sport — believe that’s exactly what rhythmic gymnastics is: easy.
“They think all the girls are doing is dancing around the carpet, which is so untrue,” she said.
“YouTube some of the routines and look what we have to do. We have to literally bend in half, do the things that a ballerina would do, yet we’re moving at almost a sprint for a minute and a half and we’re tossing equipment in the air, so it’s a combination of a sport with hand-eye coordination, flexibility, dance and strength, among a bunch of other things.
“So it’s annoying when people have misconceptions about our sport and think we run around the carpet with streamers, which is what they sometimes say,” she continued. “It is an Olympic sport for a reason, you know? It’s gymnastics and ballet kind of put in one.”
And Zetlin can’t wait for the chance to do it all on a London stage.