Fri, September 20, 2013

Jessica Zelinka runs back into medal contention

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency


Canada's Jessica Zelinka reacts after finishing the 200-metre dash portion of the heptathlon at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Aug. 3, 2012. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

LONDON - When the excruciatingly long day of competition was finally done, good Canadian girl that she is, Jessica Zelinka released her inner hockey player.

Sure, she stands third after four of seven events and is in the thick of the medal chase in the women's heptathlon, but a botched high jump in the early afternoon left Zelinka cursing mad.

The London, Ont., native, who currently trains in Calgary, made up for it in the night events with season-best efforts in the shot put and 200-metres to climb into third place overall and medal contention. But the air was blue when she described what got away.

"I could have a lot of excuses if I want, but I still haven't figured out this stupid event," Zelinka said. "At this point in time, I'm pretending I love it, that we're friends, we're friends. Now I don't want to be his friend any more. Like screw it."

Screw it indeed. In fact, the second of seven events in the gruelling two-day event could have taken Zelinka down.

After a blistering start to her day with a 12.65 personal best in the 100-metre hurdles, the 30-year-old was comfortably in second behind British heroine, Jessica Ennis. But after managing no better than 1.68 metres in the high jump -- a full 11 centimetres shy of her personal best, Zelinka fluttered all the way down to 19th place and seemingly in big trouble.

"The hurdles were incredible, just the space I was in for the race," Zelinka said. "Then in the high jump, I was searching for that space again. I was searching too much.

"The competition doesn't end after two events. After the disappointment, I was like, you want to sulk, and sulk some more and then I'll come out to the track and be ready to get back in it. I almost seemed more determined because I'm not leaving these Olympic Games disappointed."

Zelinka's comeback was a timely one for the Canadian team as it finished just as shot putter Dylan Armstrong's expected bid for a medal came up short with a disappointing fifth-place finish. The track meet may have just begun, but Zelinka may be the best remaining Canadian hope for a medal when she returns to action on Saturday morning.

After a season's best in the shot put, Zelinka had the good fortune of drawing into the fifth and final heat of the 200 metres along with Ennis who not only set a torrid pace, but guaranteed rousing encouragement form the sellout Olympic Stadium crowd of 80,000 on opening night of the track and field competition.

Zelinka seemed to respond to the crowd, jokingly saying afterwards that the "Go Jessica" cheers were for her. More likely, she was motivated by the costly points she surrendered in the high jump hours earlier.

With long jump, javelin and 800 metres to go on Saturday, Zelinka has 3,903 points, too far behind Ennis at 4,158 and second place Lithuanian, Austra Skujyte (3,974).

But at least she's in the mix for a medal, which figures to be a rarity at the track for Team Canada.

"I've seen her do it before," Athletics Canada head coach Alex Gardiner said of Zelinka's charge back into the mix. "I didn't think it was going to happen, but I didn't go 'Oh my goodness.' It was 'All right, she's done it again. She's clawed her way back.

"She's put herself in position to challenge again. Tomorrow is going to be tough."

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport