Olympics Summer

Canada's Zelinka a dark horse in heptathlon

Canada has very few solid medal contenders heading into the Beijing Olympics but heptathlete Jessica Zelinka is a dark horse candidate for the podium.
Canadian Gold medal Jessica Zelinka smiles during the Women's Heptathlon podium ceremony in the XV Pan American Games Rio-2007 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 27 July 2007. ((Martin Bernetti/Getty Images) )

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Canada has very few solid medal contenders heading into the Beijing Olympics but heptathlete Jessica Zelinka is a dark horse candidate for the podium.

The news that Carolina Kluft, the defending Olympic, World and European heptathlon champion has decided to skip the multi-event competition in Beijing opens up all sorts of possibilities for those who have long toiled in her shadow.

Zelinka, of London, Ont., won the 2007 Pan American games gold medal but her greatest achievement came in the annual IAAF World Combined Events Challenge in Gotzis, Austria, in May 2007. She finished fourth there, setting a Canadian record of 6,343 points. 

The seven-event heptathlon was first contested at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It consists of the  100-metre hurdles, high jump, shot put, and 200-metre race on the first day followed by the long jump, javelin and 800 on the final day.

Big psychological lift

Gotzis has become the ‘unofficial world championship’ in the decathlon and heptathlon. Virtually all the best multi-event athletes compete there. Indeed, Kluft chose only one heptathlon prior to winning the world title in Osaka last year and that was Gotzis. Zelinka gained an enormous psychological lift from competing against the world’s best.

"It does a lot for my confidence," says Zelinka, 26. "With Carolina out this year there are about eight to 10 of us who are at the same level. Anyone who performs at their best on those two days is going to be medaling.  I know I am in that group and I honestly believe it is anyone’s game for those two days."

Heptathletes are supportive of one another during competition. They push each other but generally are quick to offer advice. The Canadian champion remembers being awestruck in Kluft’s presence.

"She’s pretty friendly and approachable," Zelinka says. "I must admit she was a bit distracting for me. It will be kind of neat just having us all equal on the line and not having this crazy woman kicking our butt in everything."

After a year studying at the University of Western Ontario, Zelinka moved west to attend the University of Calgary in 2002 where she completed a degree in communication and culture. That’s where she met her coach Les Gramantik, who doubles as head coach to Canada’s 2008 Olympic track and field team.

Warm-weather training camps

Thanks to increased funding from the Canadian Olympic Committee and sponsorship provided by the Toronto law firm Aird and Berlis, Zelinka has been able to attend warm-weather training camps this year in Tucson, Arizona, and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Gramantik, a graduate of the University of Bucharest, jokingly refers to these training locales as "Romanian boot camps."

They work together five or six hours a day split up into two sessions. Evenings are filled with physiotherapy, dinner, a little television, which she doesn’t subscribe to at home -- "It’s a distraction" -- followed by bed.  Her elder sister Andrea, a sports physiotherapist, accompanied her in Tucson. 

The Baton Rouge camp was especially productive as she was able to train with noted long jump coach Irving (Boo) Schexnayder.

"I had mentioned to Les I need to fix my long jump," she says. "Les has known Boo for a long time so he was able to come along and brainstorm with him. I was the guinea pig. I was just doing what they told me. They were doing most of the chatting and figuring out what would work best for me. Not every coach is open like that."

At the Pan Am games in Rio Zelinka injured her right foot during the 800m, the final event of the heptathlon. The problem has persisted and she has competed infrequently ever since. The injury has restricted her long jumping in particular because she takes off on her right foot.  She came up with a solution from an unlikely source. 

Aunt gives advice on feet

"My aunt Darlene called me and said, ‘Would you consider changing feet?’ I mentioned it to Les and he kind of went, ‘Hmm, let’s try it out.’ It came very naturally. It’s almost better than my right foot."

Committed now to the switch, she reached 5.90m on her first day of training, not far off her personal best of 6.19.  Of course she continues to take off on her right foot in the high jump.

Zelinka is encouraged as she looks ahead to her first Olympics. With the experience she has, she knows enough to stay focused on each event and not panic when things don’t go right in one event. Does she envision a medal?

"I envision performing to my best on those two days," she says. "That doesn't mean personal bests in each event. That means performing under the stress, the weather, whatever comes up. If I am able to do what I need to do then I have a good chance at a medal. To guarantee a medal it will take probably, and I am guessing, 6,500 points."

Some in the know believe Zelinka is capable of such a performance.

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