Julie Zetlin has been chasing a dream since she was four — and she caught it.
Zetlin, a 22-year-old rhythmic gymnast, is representing the United States at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Though she's known for a while, Zetlin said the feeling is surreal and that she's likely to act like a schoolgirl once she gets to London and starts meeting all of the "sexy athletes" from around the globe.
"It's been incredible," she told a crowd of more than 100 family, friends and well-wishers Sunday in Arlington. "It hasn't kicked in yet. It doesn't feel real. But when I get there, it will. And being an Olympian is something I can carry with me — something I achieved in the first quarter of my life. I just can't believe it."
Zetlin's story is one of inspiration and dedication, of finding — and becoming — a role model.
Once upon a time, her mother was a Hungarian national champion.
Zsuzsi Zetlin inspired her youngest daughter to follow her dream. She also supported Julie's decision to be home-schooled for most of her junior high and high school years in order to train. It took some time to convince dad.
"I was against it," Mark Zetlin said. "But I don't make the rules in our house. My wife does." He laughed. "I just write the checks."
Julie Zetlin tried out for the 2008 Olympics but didn't make the cut.
"I was a newbie. I was very fresh to the scene," she said.
But she kept competing — eventually placing first in several championships and bringing home three gold medals in the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October.
She persevered through two knee surgeries, the second in May 2011 — just a few months before the crucial competition in France.
"It was like walking on eggshells. It was the most nervous I had ever been," Zetlin said.
She focused on her breathing and each step of her routines. Ninety seconds never lasted so long, she said.
Zetlin called it "an incredible journey"
"At the start of my career when people told me I was terrible and that I didn't have the right body, I never gave into them," she said. "I was passionate."
Her passion has allowed her to become an inspiration in her own right.
Ten-year-old Madison Gramm is one of about 20 family members who will be going to London to support Zetlin — or "JulCool," as they call her, thanks to an old AOL screen name.
Madison, a rising fifth-grader at Bullis School in Montgomery County, wrote a poem about her cousin Julie for class. The assignment was to write about a role model. Julie Zetlin was "perfectly persistent," Madison wrote.
"We've gone through all of her experiences with her, all of her ups and downs. We've always been there for her," said 12-year-old Nicole Gramm, another cousin.
Zetlin lives in Bethesda, Md., where friend Dillon Parrish said she has a bit of a reputation as being a hometown hero.
"She's just really likable all-around," said Parrish, 22. "It's not uncommon to walk down the street and see supporters rooting for her — Team U.S.A."
He added: "She really deserves it."
Zetlin's family has owned Mercedes-Benz of Arlington — formerly the American Service Station — for three generations. It was founded in 1937 as a corner gas station and kept its former name until relatively recently. Mark Zetlin sits on the Arlington Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
The business, at 585 N. Glebe Road, hosted Sunday's send-off for the family's Olympian. Friends and acquaintances left well wishes on a farewell banner draped across a table by the entrance.
"We're so excited for this," said Patti Sowalsky of Potomac, Md. "It's so wonderful to have her representing America. It's exquisite! My grandchildren are so impressed. They're dying to learn gymnastics."
As if on cue, 6-year-old Madeline Gold looked up and said, "I'm going to learn how to vault! I can already do a perfect handstand and cartwheel. I practice on my couch." And then she and her 4-year-old sister, Jacqueline, returned to the note they were writing on Zetlin's banner.
Olga Kutuzova, Zetlin's coach for the last 13 years, will accompany the Olympian to London.
Zetlin will compete in four categories — ball, ribbon, clubs and hoop — on Aug. 9 and 10. Finals are Aug. 11. She will be the first U.S. contender in ryhtmic gymnastics in eight years, according to NBC.
Mark Zetlin said he likes to yell, "Team JulCool" right before his daughter performs. Now, he said, it'll be "Team U.S.A."
The hashtag #JulCool has popped up on Twitter, Julie Zetlin said.
After the summer games — and a post-Olympics national tour featuring a variety of gymnasts — Zetlin plans to retire. She's going to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.