LONDON — Rhythmic gymnastics is to Russia’s female Olympians what beach volleyball is to the United States’: The sport that seems to mint one gold medal after another.
Given that, Bethesda’s Julie Zetlin had no illusion of finishing on the medal podium in her Olympic debut at the 2012 London Games. What she hoped to achieve, as the first American rhythmic gymnast to qualify for the Olympics since 2004, was to stage a performance that was beautiful and strong.
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.
“That’s not a mistake I ever make,” Zetlin said. “It was nerves that I wasn’t used to. As soon that little mistake happened, I was like, ‘Hey! Get your focus together and make the rest of the routine strong!’ That’s what I did.”
Wildly popular in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe, rhythmic gymnastics is little known and often mocked in the United States. But it’s a rigorous athletic and balletic discipline that demands flexibility, coordination, timing and artistry.
In the Olympics, gymnasts perform routines that are 75 to 90 seconds long with each of four apparatus: the hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon. The routines are choreographed to music and staged in elaborate leotards and almost theatrical makeup.
The range of Thursday’s musical selections was a wild as the gymnasts’ costumes and included Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”; Randy Newman’s bawdy “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and Deep Purple’s rock opus, “Smoke on the Water.”
Scores are awarded according to a routine’s difficulty, execution and artistry, with a maximum of 10 points for perfection in each. A score of 28 is deemed excellent; 26, good; 24, fair.
To be fully appreciated, rhythmic gymnastics must be seen first-hand. Even then, it’s difficult to believe, as gymnasts leap and pirouette while tossing and catching the apparatus in a seamless motion, as if it’s an extension of their body.
Like nearly all rhythmic gymnasts, the 5-foot-6 Zetlin is taller than the typical artistic gymnast. She’s also astoundingly flexible, a terrific jumper and trained in classical ballet, performing nearly all of her routines on demi-pointe.
But Zetlin’s shakiness returned during her hoop routine. The hoop got away from her for a split-second on two occasions. Again, she gathered it up and proceeded. The score, 23.750, didn’t improve her standing, leaving her 22nd among the 24.
Still, she remained upbeat and sparkly as her leotard in deconstructing what went wrong and vowing to bounce back Friday, when she’ll perform with the clubs and ribbon.
“I’m glad I got the first day done and over with, with no huge mistakes,” Zetlin said. “I’m happy with this being the first day out of my Olympic Games experience. I’m ready to get out there and be even better and stronger and be an even more fierce competitor tomorrow.”
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