HEPTATHLETE, GOLD MEDALLIST, 2007 PAN AM GAMES, AGE 27
Jessica Zelinka had just 450 metres to go. A bit more than a lap of the track atjoão Havelange Stadium in Rio de Janeiro last July would seal the deal-a Pan American Gaines gold medal, her first major international win. Then someone
kicked her right heel, or so she thought. She felt something pop, and then excruciating pain. The 800-m race was the last of seven events; heptathletes earn their glory on the instalment plan. She’d already rolled to a comfortable lead in the two-day event’s other six disciplines: the 200 metres, the 100-m hurdles, the shot put, javelin, high jump and long jump, though her jumps had been hampered by a bruised heel. She was leading in the
800, too, but now that foot was on fire.
What she was thinking at that point, she now concedes, was a blur. Maybe the blood left her head and went to her foot, she jokes, and she wasn’t thinking at all. Her fluid stride degenerated into a limping hobble. She had every right to crumple to the track and howl in pain, but not yet. First she’d tough out one step, then another, and then some more. “It was against common sense to keep running but it also at that point wasn’t too much of an option for me,” she says. “So long as I could put that foot down I was going to continue going. I was going to start the second lap and hope to heck I get to the finish line.” Then she got kicked again—jeez these women are brutal—but, no, that did make any sense.
It was more like a pop, and it seemed the pain receded a bit. And before she knew it she was over the finish line and crumpled on the track, thinking, “Oh my gosh, what happened?”
What happened wasn’t the kick of a rival runner.
Her plantar fascia, the tendon supporting her right arch, had started to tear. She kept running and it ruptured completely, taking the nerve with it.
It was good she didn’t know any of this at the time, she reflected later, or she might have upchucked on the spot. Instead, she finished the race in third place, at a respectable 2:17.86, with enough points for the gold medal. A helpful track official arrived with a wheelchair, but Zelinka
declined the offer. She got this far on her own power, why stop now?
The next few months were a grind of appointments, doctors, physio and massage therapy. She learned to drive with her left foot, and to vacuum her apartment while hopping on one leg. She grew to hate her crutches and to miss her training. It was three months before she was back at the track in Calgary with coach Les Gramantik, also the head coach for Athletics Canada.
Zelinka has an easy, infectious laugh and a self-deprecating sense of humour. But when it comes to sport she is a ferocious competitor. Most Canadians would be hard pressed to define a heptathlete (Um, is that an athlete with liver disease?), but rarely has a woman so dominated the sport at a national level. Zelinka, who graduated from the University
of Calgary’s communication and culture program, closed out her university sporting career in 2007 by bulldozing the competition. She won a record five gold medals and one silver at the Canadian Interuniversity Sports championships in Montreal that March, leading the U of C Dinos to the national championship. She personally accumulated more points than 17 of the 21 teams in the competition. T don’t consider myself tough. I consider myself stubborn, and there’s a difference,” she says. “It’s almost like a spiritual thing, really. When you get out there you put everything on the track and hope it works out.” Zelinka has made a steady climb up the international rankings, spurred in part by one of her greatest disappointments, failing
by the smallest of margins to qualify for the 2004 Athens Summer Games. She knew she was hardly unique. She says one of the great puzzlements of Canadian elite sport funding, especially for summer athletes, is that financial assistance only flows at substantial levels in Olympic years and usually to those already bound for the Games. “I was struggling with injuries and I wasn’t getting any medical support whatsoever,” she says of the period before Athens. “During those times it would have made a huge difference in getting me to the next level.”
Instead of packing in sports and “getting a real life,” missing Athens made her realize that being an Olympian was not an abstract concept, it was a goal she desperately wants to achieve. “I think it was good for me, to keep me motivated,” she says. “There was no
way I was going to go another four years and not qualify, as long as things are in my control.” She toyed briefly with dropping heptathlon and focusing on one event. The trouble is, what one? “There’s not one event I love the most; that’s the question I’m always asked,” she says. With seven demanding and varied events, there’s always something to improve, it’s like entering the stadium with a full arsenal. ‘Each event has its ups and downs, but then I have the other events to fall back on.”
As for finances, a bit of luck and her sunny, no-quit character helped her nail some badly needed sponsorships. There’s help from sports giant Nike, and from CE Franklin Ltd., an equipment supplier to the Canadian energy industry. Her father, Richard, an
urban planner, helped her land a sponsorship deal with the Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis before her gold medal Pan Am performance. “I’m not a forsure success story, it’s really great they took me on,” she says. “I’m kind of their adopted athlete.” Her right foot remains an occasionally painful reminder of Rio, but she doesn’t see it hampering her march toward Beijing. “It’s getting stronger and I’m building more endurance with it,” she says. “It’s just going to get stronger from here.” She also gave herself a bit of insurance by rethinking her long-jump strategy and switching to her left foot for the all-important takeoff. It allowed her to start fresh and unlearn a
few ingrained habits. “I think my left foot was happy to get some recognition,” she says. “I’ve been able to come off it more naturally because it’s almost like you’re starting again.”
Heptathletes are among the best all-around athletes at the Olympics. The sport’s varied nature demands a whole body workout, and the confidence to stay focused over two days and seven events. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Zelinka speaks almost lovingly of her painfully torn tendon as an “out of body experience.” She doesn’t know why her body kept running, but the fact that it did taught her this: “When the time comes, I will do whatever it takes, given the situation.” Really, what else does an athlete need to know?
JESSICA ZELINKA: OLYMPIC NUGGETS
Why heptathlon? I kind of just always did it. I love doing all the different events and the challenges they represent.
Do you remember your first competition? It was track and field day at our elementary school [Kensal Park Public School in London, Ont.]. I won all the events except for high jumping, which my best friend won. But I was going from the wrong foot, that's my defence.
Favourite sport other than heptathlon? Water polo, because my boyfriend [Nathaniel Miller] is on the national team. They just qualified [for Beijing].
Pre-meet ritual or lucky charm? My
only ritual is part of my warm-up. I just walk around the track once or twice with my coach and we just go over the plan for the day, or not say much.
We sometimes just joke around and I clear out my mind.
Training music? We're not allowed to listen to music while we're training
because when we go to competitions they actually take away our iPods and any kind of electronic device. They think they might either be performance-enhancing or it could be used as a walkie-talkie with your coach. You're left with your own thoughts, which you will be on competition day so you might as well get to know them now.
Any guilty pleasure? I guess sleeping in could be one. I tend to be good at that.
Favourite inspirational book or quote? No, I read lots of different books but I don't have a favourite.
My boyfriend has one I like, but I don't want to take it because it's his.
I think [rower] Marnie McBean said it: "You never train for the easy days."
The secret to surviving on Canadian amateur sport funding?
Go to the corporate sector, and beg.
Post-competition life plans? Just to have a family, that's all I know for sure. But not yet.
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