Two days after beating three-time NCAA champion Brianne Theisen to win the Canadian heptathlon title — with a national record of 6,599 points, no less — she ran 12.68 seconds in the 100-metre hurdles to destroy a world-class women’s field.
That stunning performance at the trials made her the ninth-fastest 100m hurdler in the world this year. And three of the women ranked ahead of her did not qualify for London in their respective national Olympic trials.
The 30-year-old Zelinka, who lives in Calgary with her husband and daughter, will now have two chances to get onto the Olympic medal podium.
“I’ve never focused on the medals,” she says. “I’m not going to change my perspective because it’s right in front of my face.
“I’m going to have the meet of my life. I have a good feeling. Things are falling into place and I am going to ride this wave.”
Zelinka is well aware that there is no room for error in the sprint hurdles, as 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep and 2003 world champion Perdita Felicien can certainly attest. They competed in that Olympic trials race in Calgary, and both saw their Olympic hopes squashed in Zelinka’s wake.
Felicien was disqualified for a false start, while Lopes-Schliep hit the seventh hurdle and came out of her lane, leading to a fifth-place finish.
‘You have earned this’
Zelinka knows that if she can get herself into the Olympic final, and remain composed, then a podium place is entirely possible.
The London, Ont., native cried tears of joy on the track in Calgary as she came to terms with the fact she had qualified for the 2012 Olympics in two events. But once she realized that her good friend Angela Whyte had finished fourth and failed to qualify, she was distraught.
The thought crossed Zelinka’s mind that she could give up her place in the hurdles so Whyte could go to London. With conflicting emotions weighing heavily on her mind, she sought out her coach Les Gramantik.
“Les gave me a hug,” Zelinka says. “And then he said, ‘So, what are we going to do?’ Then I started to cry. I said, ‘It’s Angela, I don’t know what to do.’ He just looked at me and said, 'Jess, you have had hardships, you have worked hard, you have earned this.’”
“And he didn’t pressure me in any way, he just put the facts out there. ‘This is what you have been training for, so why wouldn’t you take it?’ Honestly, before the race I never thought about the decision. I just thought I have to focus on the hep. What made the difference was the time. When I saw the time was 12.68, it would be ridiculous for me not to go with that time.”
As she relives the moment, Zelinka starts crying.
“Angela came up to me right after the race and hugged me, and she said, ‘I am so proud of you, you are such an inspiration to me.’ She was so sincere and happy for me.”
In addition to her sudden ascent to world class in the 100m hurdles, there’s also reason to believe Zelinka can improve in the heptathlon on her fifth-place finish at the Beijing Olympics. Her new Canadian record currently ranks her fourth in the world behind Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis (6,906 points) and the Russian duo of Tatyana Chernova (6,774) and Kristina Savitskaya (6,681).
“I have room for improvement for sure,” she says.
The two-day multi-discipline event consists of 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200m on the first day, followed by long jump, javelin and 800m on the second day.
That will make for a busy few days for Zelinka. The Olympic heptathlon is scheduled for Aug. 3 and 4, and the 100m hurdles heats start on Aug. 6.
While Zelinka’s hurdling has been outstanding this season, she was concerned she was focusing too much on that event and not on the other heptathlon events in which the rate of return on points is a little better.
Just over a year ago, Felicien moved out to Calgary to train with Zelinka. But the benefits to the heptathlete were slow in coming.
“Definitely last year at [the world track and field championships] the thing that threw me off in the heptathlon was my hurdles result,” Zelinka says of her disappointing ninth-place finish in the heptathlon, “It was 13.02, I think, which was good, but it was frustrating because I was training well with Perdita in the hurdles. I was kind of expecting an easy personal best there because I was putting in the work.
“So, early this season I said, ‘You know what? If I don’t do hurdles until the Olympics, I’ll be fine.’ I didn’t want to waste time training for hurdles when my other events needed attention.”
The change in approach seems to have worked. At the Harry Jerome meet in Burnaby, B.C. in June, she stunned Felicien and American Ginnie Crawford with a winning time of 12.76. At the Canadian trials, she opened the heptathlon with another 12.76 in the hurdles.
‘Go out and have fun’
Now Zelinka believes the excitement of competing at the Olympics will help her again improve her overall performance.
From a technical standpoint, she admits, she is a little off. But Zelinka has still been able to reach good distances in both the long and high jumps. And she believes she can bring her 200m time down substantially.
Zelinka’s laid-back, if sometimes emotional, approach to athletics has benefited her immensely. But it was something that Brianne Theisen said following her NCAA victory in June that caught Zelinka’s attention and made her reevaluate her attitude.
“She was saying, ‘Yeah, I just wanted to go out and have fun,’” Zelinka remembers. “It worked for her and I was thinking, ‘I don’t remember the last time I went into a meet saying I want to have fun.’ I think [in the past] I’ve put the emphasis on doing well to be able to have fun, instead of having fun and seeing the results.”
Zelinka will have a large and still-growing contingent of family members and friends in London to see her perform. In typical fashion, she was concerned with how much money they may have to fork over for tickets.
“I was a little bit nervous when everyone got their tickets before I had even qualified,” she says with a laugh. “Now they have to buy extra tickets for the hurdles.”
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