© Diane Bidermann

By Amy Rosewater – TeamUSA.org

DARNESTOWN, Md. — To find the best U.S. rhythmic gymnast, you have to really look.

She is not training in a massive training facility with all of the latest and greatest exercise equipment. Rather, you can find her stretching with a handful of tweens in a Catholic school gym that is tucked far back off windy roads in Maryland.

There are school children running around in another part of the gym and only a curtain separates them. She is not far from the nation’s capital — just about 30 miles from the White House in fact. You’d never imagine this is the home of Capital Rhythmics and its hopeful to compete in the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Make no mistake, however. Julie Zetlin, 20, is indeed the nation’s best rhythmic gymnast.

If there is a true amateur left in sports, Zetlin has got to be it.

“She’s not going to make money like the basketball players or even a scholarship like the artistic gymnasts,” said Olga Kutuzova, Zetlin’s coach. “But she still comes and trains. I don’t think in the 10 or 11 years we’ve been together that she’s ever missed a practice or even been late. She doesn’t do this because she will get something. She does it because she loves it.”

And though there is no major payout in the sport of rhythmic gymnastics, at least not in the United States, Zetlin certainly has paid her dues and she is starting to feel the payback.

At the 2010 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships, held at the Olympiysky Sports Complex in Moscow in late September, Zetlin became the second American to qualify for the all-around finals. Mary Sanders achieved that feat in 2003. But there is an asterisk that goes with that stat. Sanders was born in Toronto but had dual citizenship, allowing her to represent the United States. That makes Zetlin, born in Silver Spring, Md., the first American-born gymnast to qualify for the rhythmic all-around finals at the world championships.

Zetlin placed 23rd with 99.025 points, but the placement was secondary. The fact that Zetlin, the reigning U.S. rhythmic champion, made it so deep in the competition was the big prize.

"It’s all starting to kick in,” Zetlin said during her first practice since the World Championships. “I didn’t realize how big it was until I came back.”

As exhilarating as these last few months have been for Zetlin, she still has plenty of work cut out for her between now and the summer of 2012. Up next is the Pan American Championship Dec. 2-5 in Mexico, where she hopes to qualify the United States for a spot in the 2011 Pan American Games. There’s also the 2011 Visa Championships and 2011 World Championships, where the United States hopes to earn a spot for the Olympic Games in London.

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