Rhythmic Gymnast: Julie Zetlin

The sole member of the U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics team talks about what it takes to perform at the Olympics

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Meet the 2012 U.S. Olympic team for Rhythmic Gymnastics: Her name is Julie Zetlin.

Zetlin, 21, is the United States’ only representative for Rhythmic gymnastics and the first and only rhythmic gymnast to qualify from the United States since 2004. She earned the spot by performing well in the 2011 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in France, where she was the top performer from the Americas. Though the olympic buzz in 2008 centered on the U.S. team’s dominance in “artistic” gymnastics—where the focus is on athletic routines rather than the more expressive techniques of rhythmic—Zetlin is the sole American in a field dominated by Eastern European competitors.

“Our sport is dominated [by], and was created by, all the former Soviet Union countries,” Zetlin tells TIME at an olympic fundraising event in Times Square in New York. Looking around at the outsize ads and Broadway billboards, Zetlin notes the cultural forces that contribute to her competitors’ prowess. “In Russia you see rhythmic gymnasts on billboards because they’re the most famous athletes.”

But the Bethesda, Maryland native has a strong background to draw from; her mother Zsuzsi was a national rhythmic champion in Hungary and by age four, began learning the sport after joining a rhythmic gymnastics club. And she has faced steep challenges before—she finished recovering from a torn meniscus in her knee just days before the World Championships that qualified for competition in London this summer. And she sees the particular emphasis she puts on expressive movement and performance as an asset that sets her apart from her peers.

“I’m one of those big performers, so I really try to get into my music and try to portray some kind of story,” Zetlin says, elaborating on the challenge of showing emotion by movement alone. “You have to really be able to express it not just with your face but with your body.”

And though it was Zetlin’s childhood dream to be an olympian, acting isn’t a foreign concept to the world champion. After she retires from the sport, she hopes to leverage the fluidity with which she expresses herself on the carpet during competitions into a career as an actress. But for the time being, she sets her sights on increasing the visibility of her sport in the United States–and possibly being the first American to medal in the sport since its creation in 1984.

“I’m just trying to do well for my country, you know,” Zetlin says. “Keep the trend going for US Rhythmic gymnasts to make it to the Olympic Games, and just tackle it over there and be strong and confident.”