Just 17, Zetlin Is at the Head of the Class

Julie Zetlin
Julie Zetlin finished fourth at the national championships in 2006. (Jonathan Newton - The Post)
By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007

It was far too hot that day in June for the rhythmic gymnasts attending Rhythmflex's summer camp to spend their break outside. So they improvised and played a Russian schoolyard game inside the gym.

One girl in the center of the group held a ball and yelled out a number as the others fled to the nooks and crannies of the room before freezing in their spots. The number she yelled, six, signified how many steps she was permitted to take before trying to tag someone with the ball. There were only two potential targets anywhere near the little girl, and she didn't have many steps to reach them.

"Get Julie!" the girl to her left said, trying to save herself.

"No, get . . . " Julie Zetlin tried to plead, but it was too late. The 7-year-old already had started toward her, counting aloud. "One, two, three, four, five," and with a calculated final step, "Six! I got Julie!"

It was Zetlin's turn to stand in the cluster of gymnasts as her coach of eight years, Olga Kutuzova, looked on and said: "She doesn't play with them because she thinks she should. She does because she's having fun."

At 17, Zetlin is the oldest girl in the Gaithersburg gym by three years. She is in her second year at the senior elite level for the U.S. national program, meaning she competes at a considerably higher level than the others as well.

In 2006, her first year as a senior, she finished fourth in the all-around competition at the national championships and won titles in two disciplines (rope and clubs). She was home in Bethesda for only a few weeks between two months of competing in Europe and training in Russia, and she'll compete in Rio de Janeiro this month, one of two American rhythmic gymnasts entered in the Pan American Games.

Wearing black shorts and a robin's egg-blue T-shirt that sported a worn 2004 Olympics logo, Zetlin described what she really looked forward to in Brazil: living in the athletes' village, just as she would if she is able to reach her long-term goal.

"I want to go to the Olympics," she said matter-of-factly. "Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to go to the Olympics, and I feel like if I just end my career it will be incomplete. I don't know if it'd be this time [in 2008] . . . but by the next Olympics I'll be 22, so it just depends on how my body is."

To qualify for the 2008 Games in Beijing, Zetlin must finish in the top 20 at the world championships this September in Greece or receive a wild-card bid. There is no team competition in rhythmic gymnastics as there is in the more well-known artistic discipline. There is no spot designated for a U.S. representative.

As Zetlin detailed how hard it could be to finish among the top 20 in the world, a young gymnast walked over to express her dismay in learning her new group routine. It was different and difficult, she told Zetlin. She didn't know if she'd be able to make her catches.

"Don't worry, you'll be able to do it soon enough," Zetlin soothed. "It's okay. I used to worry the same way."

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