She also hoped to inspire a generation of young girls to surpass her achievements and build the United States into a consistent competitor in a sport she has loved since childhood.
The quality of the competition Zetlin faced at Wembley Arena showed just how difficult that’s likely to be.
Zetlin, 22, finished the first day of qualifying ranked 22nd among the 24 gymnasts vying for a spot in Saturday’s final, committing uncharacteristic errors during her ball and hoop routines.
Qualifying concludes Friday with the clubs and ribbon routines. The top 10 scorers will advance to Saturday’s medal round, and Zetlin appears well out of contention.
As things stood Thursday, two Russians and a Belarussian held the top three spots. Five of the top seven spots were claimed by Russians or gymnasts from republics of the former Soviet Union.
“They’re amazing, and I respect them tremendously,” Zetlin said of Russia’s Daria Dmitrieva, the top qualifier with 57.800 points out of a possible 60.000, and her countrywoman Evgeniya Kanaeva, currently second with 57.625 points, the defending Olympic champion who’s known as the queen of rhythmic gymnastics.
Liubou Charkashyna of Belarus (56.450) is third.
“I just try to be a little bit competitive with them,” added Zetlin, who trained in Russia for several months when she was 17 to improve the dance aspect of her performances. “I’m not putting myself down. But they’re amazing. . . . I’m just trying to be consistent and strong, and connect with the audience and give my family and country a good ride.”
For the most part, she did just that, cheered on by about 20 family members and friends.
Daughter of a former Hungarian junior champion, Zetlin is a seasoned and serious competitor with a flair for performance. But there was something so powerful about stepping onto the mat for her first Olympics, she confessed, that it rattled her composure.
“It was a whole different feeling, a whole different adrenaline rush than I’ve ever felt before,” Zetlin said. “I stepped onto that carpet, and had a pure zing go through me. And then when I was my beginning poses, I felt a little shaky.”
The arena was packed for the first day of rhythmic gymnastics. And a spirited contingent of flag-waving Russian girls raised the decibel count considerably when Dmitrieva and Kanaeva, superstars in their homeland, were introduced, shrieking and squealing as if Justin Bieber had just taken the stage.
Zetlin had the misfortune of following both Russians in the opening rotation.
Roughly 20 seconds into her 80-second routine, the ball slipped from her grasp. She quickly gathered it up and finished with flair. But her score, 24.450 points, placed her 22nd among 24 after the first rotation.