When things get hectic in her new surroundings, Jessica Zelinka finds tranquility in a familiar place.
She exits the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, walks across the street to Tindall Field and runs laps.
It’s just a leisurely jog around the track — nothing remotely close to the intensity level to which the two-time Olympic heptathlete was once accustomed — but it serves its purpose.
“It’s my way to ground myself again,” said Zelinka, who’s enrolled in the 12-month Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, in which the students spend the first two weeks on campus. She returns to Calgary this weekend where she will continue her studies online, but she’ll be back on campus for a week in December and another week next May.
“I’m out of my comfort zone a lot,” she said of being in a classroom. “Being on the track, it’s nothing intense, just a routine where I can feel a rhythm.
“I try to run every day.”
The school day for Zelinka and her classmates is 12 hours — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — punctuated by a one-hour lunch and breaks every two hours.
“There’s not a lot of movement in class,” she said. “I’m getting people in the class to do four-minute workouts. You do one exercise for 20 seconds, take a 10-second rest, do eight reps of 20-second exercises. I’m just trying to get a workout in.”
A year ago, Zelinka, who turned 36 on Sept. 3, never would have imagined herself back in the classroom.
“I hated school in high school and university,” said the London, Ont., native who graduated from the University of Calgary in 2007 with a bachelor of arts in communications and culture.
She retired last year after failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics, which would have been her third. She competed in heptathlon at two Olympics — 2008 in Beijing, where she finished fifth, and 2012 in London, where she finished seventh. She also competed in the 100-metre hurdles in London, finishing seventh.
She won a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games and silver medals at the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games
“I didn’t consider the option of going back to school until [the fall of 2016],” said Zelinka, whose daughter, Anika, 8, began her new school year in Grade 3. “I was trying to qualify for the Olympics but I didn’t and thought, ‘that’s the last year of doing that.’”
Last fall she attended a conference in Toronto to learn more about the Canadian Olympic Committee’s program known as Game Plan, which has a partnership with the Smith School of Business. The school provides scholarships for up to 1,200 athletes. The scholarships are for Olympians who want to continue their education once their competitive careers have ended.
“The Smith School of Business sounded interesting,” said Zelinka, who estimates her scholarship’s value at $30,000. “It was kind of what I wanted to do. The grad program is an opportunity for someone like myself. I want to know how to do it well. I want to be able to do it at my best.”
Her first day back in class, after a 10-year absence, was an eye-opener.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I began it open-minded. I had no business background whatsoever.
“But I’m hard on myself. The first day they wrote some stuff on the board and I thought, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
She described the first few days of classes as “pretty intense.”
“It’s challenging, but it’s neat, fun, exciting. I’m not used to working in groups. I’m used to being around small groups — one coach, one leader.
“I’ve been living in a bubble for a long time.”
As a heptathlete, Zelinka excelled in seven different sports. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she’s not committing herself to one particular branch of the business world at this point.
“I might do an internship option or choose a small business that excites me,” she said. “I still don’t know what I want to do in the future. Hopefully at the end of the two weeks I’ll have a better idea.
“There’s an amazing network of alumni. This program is well connected to the world of business. There are great mentors.”
Zelinka, one of three Olympians in the Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation program — the others are rowers Will Dean, 30, of Kelowna, B.C., (London 2012, Rio 2016) and Mike Braithwaite, 30, of Duncan, B.C. (London 2012) — sees some similarities between being a world-class athlete and a master’s student.
“You’re performing under pressure, on demand,” she said. “In heptathlon [seven events contested over two days], you’re used to performing when you’re exhausted and you don’t want to do it anymore. I need a recovery day, more recovery time.”
Spending so much time in the classroom during her two weeks in Kingston has kept Zelinka from seeing more of the city, which she visited before when her oldest sister, Deanna, was a post-graduate student at Queen’s.
“I thought I can’t wait to explore, but I can’t do it,” she said. “On my first day, I took a walk by the cute little market [at Springer Market Square]. It was so nice.”
Her exposure to the Limestone City has been her daily walk from the downtown hotel where she’s staying to the Queen’s campus.
“I’ve been walking and getting a feel of the city — the stone buildings and the history, the historical landmarks. People are down to earth.”
Her classmates have invited her out, but in Zelinka’s case, once an athlete, always an athlete.
“As an athlete, you didn’t do the social stuff,” she said. “You need a rest. People from class will go out and eat, but I still have an athlete’s mindset — I’m doing stuff alone and resting.
“I’m back in a bubble.”