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Rhythmic Diaries: 'The Day I Met 2012 Olympic Gymnast Julie Zetlin'

Posted: 03/16/2012 9:19 am

Amanda and Elaine Dai are sisters and competitive rhythmic gymnasts who train at Rhythmic Dreams in Newton, Massachusetts. "Rhythmic Diaries" is their account of balancing training and competing in this rigorous sport with being normal high school students.

ELAINE DAI

When I first beheld elite rhythmic gymnast Julie Zetlin at the annual Rhythmic Challenge at the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, CO, I was overwhelmed by her presence on the carpet. I vividly recall her emerging from the back, a cerise smile painted on her lips, flashing white teeth as she made her way to the carpet. Her eyes, accented by a touch of silver shimmer above heavy black eyeliner, changed from shining crescents to a hooded look as she saluted the judges and walked on the carpet. I felt a tangible power emanate from her -- whether it was her broad, squared shoulders, confident steps, or concentrated demeanor, I don't know. But when the music started and she began her routine, she captivated the audience from her first movement and held us enthralled until the very end. I watched as the steely streaks on her black leotard came to life, snaking around her cerulean ball as she rolled, leaped, and pirouetted, seemingly unaffected by gravity's pull. Her leotard, a resplendent combination of metallic sheen on raven black, gave rise to a splash of sapphire blue cascading in a v-shape from just below her neck and along the contour of her back, its color emphasizing the fluidity of her motion and ostensible synchronization with her apparatus. I saw poised elegance and incredible power combined in one, graceful figure-eights balanced with high-speed jumps and precise turns.

All the while, the stacato beats of her music -- reminiscent of the tension and intensity of a thunderstorm -- matched by the pounding of my own heart and flooded the gym. For those 90 seconds, I lived and breathed Julie's routine. Her knit eyebrows and penetrating expression, both reflecting the ominous progression of her music and the degree of her focus, transported me to the carpet with her. I watched as her ball practically leapt into her outstretched hand with the amplitude of her throw, an almost magnetic link binding them together. I watched as she transitioned from one element to the next, traversing the vast carpet with seeming ease. And above all, I watched as she handled herself with a striking calm seconds before her music was about to end: making a moment's decision to end her element short, without breaking eye contact with the judges, she slammed her ball to the ground, the impact ringing through a gym stunned to speechlessness. I expected the ball to pop under the sheer force, but it remained pressed against the carpet while she sat on one knee, the other bent to the side as she held us rapt in her impromptu ending pose. For one long moment, no one moved. I hardly dared to breathe. Then Julie rose, breaking our frozen stares as she stood and smiled, blowing a kiss to the judges and another to the audience. The last thing I remember was her fuchsia smile held under twinkling eyes before she turned and left the carpet.

Over three years have passed since then, and during that time she has claimed the U.S. National Title in 2010, won the 2010 and 2011 Pan American Championships, and represented the U.S. for the 2011 Rhythmic World Championships, to name a few. Now, after 17 years of training, she's reached the pinnacle of her career: qualifying for the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

Julie has overcome numerous setbacks, such as a second knee surgery last May, and has shown me stark determination and passion in their purist forms. She serves as a resilient inspiration after withstanding enormous pressure to consistently execute routines at the international level and bring rhythmic forward in the U.S. The Washington Post even wrote an article, "London Olympics 2012: Julie Zetlin Tasked With Saving The U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics Program," about her future Olympics venture.

And she's risen to this success even though she was "no natural" and did not fit the "flexibility and body type -- tall and very skinny, [like] what you see on a runway," according to an article posted on her team's website, Capital Rhythmics. She has remained very much the same person -- a girl who fell in love with rhythmic and trains simply because of her love of the sport. She is most definitely, in my heart, the "true amateur left in sports," and my favorite going into the Olympics this summer.

We love you, Julie, and thank you, truly, for pursuing your passion as wholeheartedly and steadfastly as you have.

AMANDA DAI

"You're late." A gentle prodding shakes my limp body. "C'mon, get up." Instinctively, I turn my back to the disturbance, but it shows no signs of stopping. Annoyed, I crack open my eye to see my mom yawning sleepily while she continues to shake me, hoping to incite a response.

"What time is it?" I mutter, unreasonably too lazy to check for myself.

"Almost eight," she replies. "Hurry and get up."

"Yeah, I'm going," I insist, but my aching muscles don't allow me to get far. My mom watches my struggle to get out of bed and starts toward the door.

"Get ready," she says over her shoulder drowsily. "We leave in half an hour." I nod in confirmation even though she doesn't see me, but once she leaves I collapse back onto my pillow.