Sarah Zelenka was 7 years old when she started taking swimming lessons in her hometown of Itasca. She also tried soccer, volleyball and then settled on basketball, which she played at Lake Park High School in Roselle. She was even good enough to get a few scholarship offers, but had burned out on the game.
Still, sports had become part of her. So when Zelenka enrolled at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, she browsed the list of intramural sports available to students, and rowing caught her eye. Ultimately, she skipped the light intramural league and, instead, joined the competitive rowing crew.
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"It was in my second week I realized this was it," Zelenka said. "I knew I didn't have the talent level to go very far in basketball, but in rowing I felt like that was my sport."
Her instincts were dead-on, and now Zelenka, 25, is preparing to compete in the Summer Olympics in London later this month. She and her partner, Sara Hendershot, qualified during Olympic trials on June 14 in New Jersey; their first Olympic race is July 28.
Zelenka's rise to excellence in rowing came quickly. By her senior year of college in 2009, she had led her eight-woman rowing team to two championships that year. After graduation, Zelenka was invited to train with the U.S. National Rowing Team at it training center in Princeton, N.J. "That's the great thing about rowing," Zelenka said. "It's one of those sports you can pick up in college and, as long as you're in good shape and get the technique down, you can take it as far as you want."
During her time with the U.S. rowing team, Zelenka racked up more medals and started traveling the world. In 2009, she competed in a world championship in the Czech Republic for rowers younger than 23, where she placed sixth. She then won gold in the women's eight and four boats at the 2010 and 2011 Rowing World Cups in Lucerne, Switzerland. Last year, she won gold in the women's four boat at the Rowing World Championships in Bled, Slovenia. But so far nothing has compared to the Olympic trial last month, which Zelenka's mother, Rosemary, said was "The best race I've seen in my entire life."
Zelenka said she had trouble eating or sleeping in the days leading up to the race. But once she got in the boat, everything changed.
"It was definitely very nerve-racking," she said. "But during the race it was the calmest I have ever been. I just knew we were getting ahead."
And when the women qualified, Zelenka said "everything got really crazy" as the athletes cheered and her mother was brought to tears.
"It was a pretty amazing experience, because it's the last chance you get to basically live your dream," she said.
Less than two days of downtime were allowed after the trials before Zelenka and Hendershot were required to ramp up their training again. In the last month, the pair has been training for specific race scenarios. She leaves today for London.
Zelenka said she feels prepared and believes they can bring home a medal.
"You alway expect to do well and be your best," she said. "I think we can be really fast. And if we have our best race at the Olympics, I think we can end up on the podium."