Zelinka wins gold at Pan-Am Games

By Dan Plouffe

Jessica Zelinka of the University of Calgary captured the most memorable gold medal of Canada’s six at the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro Jul. 25. Zelinka fought through the pain of what proved to be a ruptured plantar tendon during the final event of the women’s heptathlon, the 800 metre, to preserve her lead in the standings.

“It felt like I got kicked from behind right where my bruised heel is,” said Zelinka. “It felt like a pop. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to do another lap?’ But I was gonna do it whether I was walking or crawling or whatever, so stopping didn’t cross my mind at all.”

Zelinka complained earlier in the competition that her heel, injured a week earlier at the Canadian track and field championships, was causing her plenty of trouble with her jumps in particular. The high jump and the long jump were the only two of the seven events in which she wasn’t one of the best three at the competition.

A particularly strong shotput and her gutsy 800 metre run gave her a total of 6,136 points, better than Cuban Gretchen Quintana’s second-place score of 6,000.

“If I can put that together with my jumps for Osaka, it could be a big score,” Zelinka said immediately after the competition, before learning her injury would sideline her for this year’s World Championships in Japan. “I’m very happy. This is my first international medal and it’s a gold.”

Zelinka’s memories of her biggest victory will be bittersweet, further soured by an overly passionate crowd that cheered misses by foreign athletes who were competing against Brazilians. When Zelinka missed her first attempt at clearing 1.71 metres in the high jump, she smiled and waved at the cheering crowd, pretending as if she made it.

“I was a bit shocked, but I’d rather give them the thumbs up than the middle fingers up,” said Zelinka. “I wanted to [give them the finger] but I thought of my mother and what she would say if I did, so I didn’t.”

She added that athletes must also remember sport etiquette during competitions.

Zelinka’s success on a far bigger stage than the CIS indoor circuit is virtually unheard of considering most elite Canadian track and field athletes’ development path goes through an NCAA school in the u.s.

“Having the success that Jessica and I have had this week and in our careers just really proves that you don’t need to go to the States to get good in track and field,” said fellow gold medalist Jim Steacy from the University of Lethbridge. “Obviously it does help for some events, but we’re proof that you can do it in Canada if you believe. It’s great. I’m very proud to be training in Canada and competing for Canada. It’s just icing on the cake.”

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