Julie Zetlin, Candace Whiting and Carly Johnson

By Amy Johnson

Last summer, while the nation’s top rhythmic gymnasts were battling it out in Detroit for a coveted qualifying position at the U.S. National Championships in Hartford, Conn., there was another rhythmic national championship taking place — in Nebraska.

For the first year ever, Special Olympics held a Rhythmic National Championship, and Candace Whiting of Frederick, Md., won gold across the board, with a little help from a friend.

Candace is an extraordinary athlete — she has competed at the national and international levels in everything from kayaking to tennis to alpine skiing, artistic gymnastics, swimming and is totally an all-around performer. Oh, and in her spare time between kayaking the Potomac and skiing in the Poconos, she also dances.

Candace has served as a spokesperson for Special Olympics and is a sought-after motivational speaker. She also says that the hardest sport she has ever done is rhythmic.

Her wonderful mom, Carole, seconds that. She says it is very easy to coach kayaking ("PADDLE!") or track ("RUN!") but how do you coach someone who has never milled clubs or tossed a ribbon when you haven’t a clue yourself? Candace had a volunteer college-student coaching her, but her forte was artistic gymnastics.

Through a mutual friend, Candace came across Carly Johnson, at the time a Level 9 rhythmic gymnast with Capital Rhythmics in Darnestown, Md. Throughout the year, Candace would come to Carly’s house to practice floor exercise, rope, ball, and ribbon in her living room. Candace would practice clubs in her own backyard, constantly reviewing a DVD to study the details of her intricate routines. The girls met often at a local ballet studio to practice. Carole manning the DVD, the girls looking at the computer, in the mirror, and back to the computer. While 25-foot ceilings are considered prohibitive, the girls would train under an 8-foot ceiling and make due.

As nationals came closer, Candace got some expert tweaking from Olga Kutuzova, the head coach at Capital Rhythmics, and would get pointers from Capital teammate and now U.S. national champion, Julie Zetlin. At Capital, Candace finally had the opportunity to step onto a "real" carpet, not a living room rug or freshly mowed lawn.

There were other obstacles. During the Maryland state competition, Candace wore her artistic leotard with a chiffon ballet skirt. Maryland Special Olympics said they would buy new leotards for its rhythmic squad, but the ones they chose had no skirts and were tight and itchy, and prohibited movement.

Equipment was another issue. No one expected regulation rhythmic equipment to be so expensive. (Candace trained with a rope she had cut at a local hardware store.) Maryland Special Olympics paid some of the equipment costs, but Candace and Carole invested in the same quality equipment that Julie and Carly use.

As Carly competed in Detroit at the National Qualifier, she anxiously hovered over her cell phone, waiting for news from Nebraska, where Candace did not disappoint. Golds across the board – five in all – comprising half of the Maryland squad’s gold count from Nebraska.

Candace’s mom, Carole, says this is a perfect time to advocate a "fabulous sport to an entirely new audience. I love rhythmic because this is a sport for young women with special needs who want to be elegant and stay healthy and tone," she explained. And for Candace, who turned 25 while in Nebraska, rhythmic may be where she needs to be for a long time. She says that "rhythmic provided the challenge I needed and is unlike any other sport, even though I have been dancing since I was young. I am so proud of myself."

Carly, who achieved her Level 10 in Detroit and went on to compete at the U.S. Nationals, and Candace, continue their friendship and support of each other as athletes. For both outstanding young ladies, the sky is truly the limit.