Zelinka hopes a change will do her good

ALISON KORN -- For Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

It's not a change of heart, but rather a change of foot, that's become part of Canada's top heptathlete's plan for the Olympics.

Yet in the end it may come down to heart -- whether Jessica Zelinka will master the technical challenge of switching to her right foot for take-off in the long jump, to relieve pressure on her sore left foot, in time for the Beijing Olympics in August.

The London native has already met Athletics Canada's Olympic-qualifying standard, and last summer won the gold medal at the 2007 Pan Am Games in Brazil. But that awesome win came with a painful cost -- a ruptured tendon in her left foot during the 800-metre race, the last of the seven events in the heptathlon.

Though the injury was on the mend, it flared up again at a meet in Saskatoon last month, forcing Zelinka to pull out of the long jump -- and opening her mind to an unusual change.

"My aunt, who used to be a track-and-field coach, called and left a message: 'I don't know, it might be crazy, would you ever consider changing feet in the long jump?' '' Zelinka said.

This is not something world-class athletes normally do, especially so close to an Olympics. Zelinka, who has been jumping off her left foot since she started competing as a 9-year-old, mentioned the idea to her coach Les Gramantik, at the University of Calgary.

"We were both like, well, we'll try it out and see what happens, if it's a total gong show," Zelinka said. Right away they realized "this can work, this can really work."

Imagine learning to write with your other hand, or kicking or throwing from your weaker side. It sounds like a huge project, but consider professional basketball players who can shoot, pass and dribble so well that it's impossible to tell whether they're right- or left-handed. Nonetheless, all athletes have a dominant side and while strength can be gained, technique is all about feel.

"It's a learning challenge," said Andy Higgins, director of the National Coaching Institute in Toronto, and a longtime athletics coach. "It's not just the take-off skill, but then following through with the flight in the air, and the landing. It's a mirror image of what you did the other way."

In the long jump, athletes take from 16 to 19 strides as they sprint up to the take-off board, which measures 20 centimetres wide. The final two strides are crucial to landing one's last step precisely on the board before take-off. Zelinka is committed to viewing the decision to change her take off foot as positive.

"I developed a lot of bad habits in this event over the years, and just got stuck in a rut," Zelinka said. "It's kind of refreshing to start something new."

The heptathlon is a two-day competition involving seven track and field events: The 100-metre hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 metres, long jump, javelin and 800 metres. Last year, Zelinka won Athletics Canada's Dr. Fred Tees Memorial Trophy for best university athlete, and was named the Canadian inter-university top female athlete.

She's also signed her first major sponsorship deal, with the Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis LLP. The firm, which previously sponsored speedskater Clara Hughes, has a ringside seat as Zelinka writes in with regular updates on her progress towards Beijing.

"People get a real insight in to how difficult a life it is to be an international amateur athlete, but also the really positive stuff," managing partner Eldon Bennett said. "The highs, and the lows, the injuries, successes, the tribulations that go with it. It's one of those rare initiatives that everybody in the firm feels part of."

With five months remaining until the Olympics, Zelinka is privileged to have both the talent and the resources needed to excel. Now the question is, will her bold decision prove to be brilliant?

"Some athletes will do an inordinate amount of work to make it happen," Higgins said, "and others will go only so far and say it wasn't meant to be."

Her foot, and now her heart: How well Zelinka adapts will show strength of character -- and that's what makes sport so fascinating.


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