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Zetlin out for experience, not gold
At the Olympic Media Summit this month in Dallas, among aspiring Olympians talking of medals and podiums and striving to be the world’s absolute best, rhythmic dancer Julie Zetlin said something shockingly candid, direct and rare.
That she has absolutely zero chance to win a medal.
“I don’t think so,” the 21-year-old said when asked if she were hoping for a medal. “Realistically, I don’t want people to have expectations that I’m not going to reach. I’m crossing the boundary line in making the Olympics.”
OK, but she’s at least hoping that she’ll finish in the top 10 and advance to the all-around finals, right?
Zetlin smiled and shook her head from side to side.
“Honestly, I just want to be strong,” she said. “I just want to be consistent and strong. I think people will be impressed if I have no mistakes. This is the moment I’ve been training for my whole life. Strong and not scared. I don’t want to have fear.”
This is the wonderfully compelling if under-the-radar story playing out in a form of gymnastics few in this country pay attention to: an Olympian in touch with the fact she has little to no chance of medaling, yet thrilled with the honor that she will represent her country anyway.
Julie Zetlin doesn’t want to win it all. She just wants to conquer her fear and do what she can. It’s a sports story any amateur athlete anywhere can relate to.
Olympic gold lasts forever. Medals are wonderful, unifying and inspiring. Being the best — especially at the Olympics, where the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent compete — has historic and life-changing implications. Standing on that podium must be among one of life’s rarest-known joys.
But as special, if not as alloyed or celebrated, is an athlete competing because the joy of sport and the zeal of representing America are the only prizes she expects to take home.
“We’re just trying to make it,” said Zetlin’s mom, Zsuzsi Zetlin, a former Hungarian rhythmic dancing national champion. “Not just Julie Zetlin but the United States, to even be able to go to the Olympics (in rhythmic gymnastics)... It’s much more difficult to break into rhythmic gymnastics because it’s a very European, Eastern European-dominated sport.”
In fact, the United States has never medaled in rhythmic gymnasts since it became an Olympic sport in 1984, and the country failed to qualify for the Games in 2008. It was a very low moment for the sport.
The fact is, USA Gymnastics probably would prefer to have its athletes talk about dreaming of Olympic gold and holding out hope they can earn a spot on the podium. Zetlin is unique — in her candor, in the sport she is competing in, even in the fact she’s already qualified for the Olympics while most every other aspiring Olympian still has to earn a spot.
“The challenge from an individual event like that is making sure that you train at the level you need to train and that you peak at the level you need to peak at,” said Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics. “So when you don’t have the edge of trying to make a team, you only have yourself to push.
“So doing the things you need to do can be a little more challenging because you’re not competing to make the team,” he said. “You have to keep that knife sharp. You have to be very careful not to overwork yourself. You have to have enough adrenaline to work yourself at the right level.”
All of that is true, particularly on the artistic gymnastics side, where a stunning amount of depth among the women means there are several Olympic-worthy athletes who will not compete in London.
But the goal — and the focus — is more refined for Zetlin, and one could argue it is of a very pure variety. She will not get rich. There will be no brands to build, no “Dancing With The Stars,” no Subway commercials. There almost certainly will be no medals, nor a chance at one once the field of 24 is cut to 10.
There’s just an athlete, hoping to help her country break into an event dominated by the former Soviet Union with a love for sport and her country that drives everything.
Winners are great. But so are the competitors we rarely hear about, those who do not win, those like Julie Zetlin: dedicated, focused, ready and devoting her life to a sport that will give her back only whatever joy comes from it.
“Now that we have an Olympian, it puts the United States on the map,” her mom said. “Julie would say she just wanted to break that cycle, and hopefully we get stronger and the cycle continues with another Olympian next time.”
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.
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