When Julie Zetlin travels, so does her hoop. Perplexed looks and questions come, too. Is that a hoop for a new dress? A giant engagement ring? Are you a hula-hooper?
"I'm not a circus freak, I promise," Zetlin said. "I'm not part of Ringling Brothers. I'm a rhythmic gymnast."
The explanation from the 22-year-old from Bethesda, who will become the first U.S. rhythmic gymnast to compete in the Olympics since 2004, elicits a predictable reaction.
Oh, rhythmic gymnastics. Like Will Ferrell prancing around, red ribbon in tow, in "Old School" in a last-ditch bid to save his fraternity? Zetlin hears this all the time.
"Let's just put it this way, I don't run around going like this," said Zetlin, swinging her arms wildly, "and flailing my arms and legs everywhere."
In a sport dominated by Russians that has never attained the popularity of its artistic cousin in the U.S., Zetlin is something of a pioneer.
She doesn't expect to medal in London; no U.S. gymnast has in the sport.
Instead, Zetlin views her Olympics trip as "upping the game" for rhythmic gymnastics in the U.S.
"The history of rhythmic gymnastics is too short in the U.S.," said Olga Kutuzova, Zetlin's coach at Capital Rhythmics in Darnestown since she was 9 years old. "But now more and more kids are attracted to this sport and newspapers are talking about it."
The sport is built around four apparatuses: ball, ribbon, clubs and hoop. Flexibility is crucial with the ball along with the rest of the elements, balance matters with the batonlike clubs, turns and spinning are key with the ribbon, and the hoop is a combination of each. Each routine is performed to music, which, for Zetlin, ranges from English rockers Muse to Ricky Martin.
One of Zetlin's leotards — accented with Swarovski rhinestones — costs upward of $1,600. She uses four.
While the sport can sell out Verizon Center-sized arenas in Europe and lands Russian athletes on billboards, Zetlin moves forward without financial support from the U.S. Olympic Committee and enough money from USA Gymnastics to cover a quarter of her expenses.
Zetlin's mother, Zsuzsi, a Hungarian junior national champion in the sport, pulled her hyper, dance-loving 4-year-old from an artistic gymnastics program after two weeks and ushered her into the rhythmic world.
Height and age are prized in the sport, in stark contrast to the artistic world. Zetlin is 5-foot-6 and believes the years of patience needed to hone the rhythmic skills (the gymnasts tend to peak in the mid-20s while, for example, Gabby Douglas of the U.S. artistic team is 14 years old) has dampened the sport's U.S. growth.
But Zetlin, who claimed gold at the Pan-American Games last year, doesn't expect her career to continue much longer. Zetlin has torn the meniscus twice in her right knee and had surgery to repair the latest damage four months before she earned a wild-card berth to the 2011 World Ryhthmic Gymnastic Championsips in Montpellier, France. Before each routine, she felt like she was going to be sick. The knee may need to be cleaned out again. Each day, Zetlin's body reminds her time is limited.
That's now how she sees rhythmic gymnastics in the U.S.
"I think we've been stuck in a level for a little while," Zetlin said. "I'm kind of the one crossing the boundary line."
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