One-time Canadian record holder in heptathlon fell just short of qualifying for Rio Olympics.
LONDON, ONT.—As the sun set on a track a hemisphere away from Rio de Janeiro, Jessica Zelinka stretched out to study her shoes. They were grey and tired, the rubber tread worn clean off the balls of her feet.
They were her very last pair.
Her contract with Nike expired in 2013, a year after her second Olympic appearance, and with its conclusion stopped the flow of footwear. She has never had to buy running shoes for herself because her parents bought them when she was a child, and Nike sent them as she emerged as high school track star.
“I would have definitely been out of these three months ago,” she said with a smile. “I didn’t even want to warm up in these in England. I was like, ‘Uh, this looks really bad — I’ll just put my spikes on.’ ”
England was where it ended, once and for all. Zelinka, a one-time Canadian record holder in heptathlon, a prominent fixture in Canadian Olympic marketing material leading to the London Olympics four years ago, went back to England last month in a last-ditch attempt to qualify for the Rio Games.
The 34-year-old fell short.
When she returned home it was, for the first time in her adult life, as a former athlete. Her life on the track had ended. She said she felt neither sadness nor shock, but she felt a need to mourn.
“I didn’t want to be around people,” she said. “I wanted to try to connect with myself and what I was feeling, even though it was kind of scary and overwhelming.”
She spent a week alone at her parents’ cottage in Grand Bend, an hour north of London.
“That whole week, I would just do whatever I felt I needed to do,” she said. “I danced, I cried. Danced and cried in the living room.”
The heptathlon was a marquee event at the London Olympics, with billboards of British star Jessica Ennis plastered on buildings across the city. Ennis won gold, but Zelinka was in the top 10, finishing seventh.
She made the final in the 100-metre hurdles, too, lining up next to eventual winner Sally Pearson in the final as a light rain fell in the stadium. Zelinka finished seventh — seventh-best on the planet.
Some of her most admirable work came after the Games, after the lights had dimmed and the funding had slowed to a trickle. Zelinka decided she would push for one more chance, one more shot at an Olympics, even if it meant she would have to do it largely alone.
She moved for family reasons to Connecticut. With her funding reduced and her coaching back at home, she tried to teach her then-four-year-old daughter to film her workouts. At one point, she tried balancing her iPhone against a shoe for a more steady shot.
Injuries began to creep into the picture last year. Zelinka was resting an injury to her right Achilles tendon when it was decided she should undergo surgery to repair another injury in her left ankle. She went almost a year without competing, until this spring.
“I felt anxious for her,” said her father, Richard. “And as she pulled off her last attempts to qualify this year, I was sad for her.”
He paused: “But she has accomplished so much.”
Zelinka was back on the track one night earlier this month to co-host a sprint clinic for about two dozen registrants at TD Stadium, on the campus of Western University. She was to be back on the track for a second session Thursday.
She has a job lined up at a gym set to open later this year in Calgary, but retirement goals are still a bit of a moving target.
“It was worth it,” she said, the sun having dipped below the horizon and the track having gone quiet. “It was worth another shot. And I sincerely mean that.”