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

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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.

I'll just close my eyes for a second... I assure myself as I drift back asleep. For a few minutes, I lie in bed unconscious, completely blacked out. I would have slept for another hour if not for my mom. She'd reentered the room, powered on the radio and set it on full blast. Groaning, I lug myself out of bed and begin my quotidian routine. Half an hour later, I rush into the car, slam the door shut, and fall asleep immediately as we back out of the garage.

I honestly don't know how I'm going to get through this day, I think glumly as I fall out of yet another position while warming up. I can't even stand on two feet without stumbling. Right after arriving at the gym and finishing the warm-up, we practice our skills, or 'elements' as we call them, and line up to practice jumps. Having completed only a few good turns, I reach the end of the line and wait for my turn. I plant my hands on my hips and sort out what I did wrong in my elements. Frustration overwhelms me when I recall how poorly I executed my elements, how I cannot even do half my skills.

Geez, what's wrong with me? I exhale an aggravated sigh and grind my teeth together, then slap my thighs when they start to shake again. Am I really this weak? Discouraged, I start another line of elements with the same level of success. As my impatience grows, I begin messing up more and caring less. And when I care less, I work less. For the rest of lines, I do mediocre balances and sloppy jumps. Once lines are over, we are told to take our apparatus and start practicing routines. I inwardly groan in exasperation.

I hover over my gym bag for a minute, indecisive of what to take. Judging by my rough day so far, I'm not up for a routine I struggle with. Sighing, I finally decide to take the hoop, which is my strongest apparatus. I wring my wrists, take a deep breath, and head back towards the carpet.

I thankfully find that I can still do my hoop routine as well as usual. However, I am not in the mood to work. My previous discouragement has left me unwilling to try. My body feels detached and flimsy, and my muscles hurt to tense. Even my mind is lazy. I am convinced that it is the overwhelming fatigue that is holding me back. I'm not working as frequently as before, and I take many breaks. Before long, I'm barely working at all, and I only run through my routine twice before I go with music.

Focus. That is the one word I think before the music starts. As the music begins and my routine progresses, my mind and body are forced to wake up. By the end, I'm completely reenergized. Ironically, once I started to seriously work I gained my energy back. I did another routine, and another, and the more I did the more focused and determined I became.

I was never tired. I only thought that I was. Looking back now, I realize I used fatigue as an explanation to why I did not do my elements properly. I made myself think and feel something I never was to begin with. And I wasted precious training time doing so. My coach always says that the only thing in my way is myself. And she's right. Now, I aim to overcome that obstacle.