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Flames Feature: Clearing A Unique Set Of Hurdles

March 2, 2007
|  Lynchburg, Va.
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Zelinskas hopes to post a high score in the pentathlon at this weekend's ECAC Championships in Boston.

Zelinskas hopes to post a high score in the pentathlon at this weekend's ECAC Championships in Boston.

In our culture today, running has become a metaphor for many different things. People run away from things, but most of the time, they are not physically running. People run toward things, but again, this often means they are actively engaged in making a choice. For Liberty track star Arlene Zelinskas, the 2006 Big South Indoor Track Women's Outstanding Performer of the Year, running has also acted as a vehicle for change, and part of her very unique story. 

One reason Zelinskas' story is unique is that coming out of high school, she was not heavily recruited. Track and field was not her first sporting love. In fact, the Liberty senior was a high-level gymnast and also played soccer during her early athletic career. Track was not a consideration for the Ohio native, until one thing changed. 

During her sophomore year of high school, at the age of 15, the current Lady Flame suffered a severe neck injury. As one might imagine, this was a catastrophic injury for a promising gymnast. However, it proved to be the primary catalyst which caused change in Zelinskas' sporting life. 

"I was doing a vault and didn't fully complete the rotation. I landed on the back of my head and tore the ligaments between C-4 and C-5 (vertebrae). My spine was 1/8 inch out of alignment," the track star explained. "I had a cervical fusion and was in a neck brace for five months." 

In the aftermath of this injury, Zelinskas took up running. "After the injury, the doctors told me I was allowed to run, so I ran every day. I had been physically active for as long as I could remember and all of a sudden, they told me to stop," she recalled. The orders of her doctors proved to spark a newfound fascination, which proved an important mechanism for her to return to athletics. As Zelinskas continued to recuperate from her neck surgery, she made the decision to pursue track at a higher level and was recruited by Liberty. 

Zelinskas' story continues to be unique in the sense that at Liberty, she has chosen to pursue a difficult major, biology. While it may be fitting the athlete chose such a major, considering her injury history, the native of Dayton, Ohio, says there was deeper reasoning behind the decision. 

"Right now, I'm thinking of going to medical school. Biology just interests me, and I feel like that's the direction I should go." 

Not only is Zelinskas planning to attend medical school, but she is establishing an excellent level of academic success while here at Liberty. With seven straight semesters on the University's Dean's List, the senior has shown academic consistency no matter her athletic schedule. 

Her academic achievements do not end with that consistency, as they also include good standing in the school's honors program, a 2006 VaSID all-state all-academic team award and three-consecutive years as a member of the Big South Presidential Honor Roll. 

Zelinskas has also received two major academic honors -- she was selected as the 2006 Big South Outdoor Track and Field Scholar-Athlete of the Year and was named to the NCAA U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) all-academic team for track and field, a prestigious honor for which she was recognized in July. 

When asked about Zelinskas' USTFCCCA honor, head track and field coach Brant Tolsma said, "Arlene is a first-class student and athlete. She is in one of the most difficult majors at Liberty. It's an honor that's well deserved." 

Still, athletes who are academically successful are not unheard of in today's time. Neither are athletes who return from a major injury. What continues to make Zelinskas' career unique is the combination of her success in the classroom and her on-track achievements. Such a successful combination is rare, at least in part because of the time constraints placed upon today's collegiate athletes. 

"I feel that because I'm an athlete, I'm more efficient with my time when I am studying," Zelinskas said. "If I don't have practice one day, I might procrastinate a little longer and not be able to get everything done that I need to. But since I only have a certain block of time, after track practice, I'll go home, get ready, and work as long as I need to and I'll get it done before I need to go to sleep." 

In addition to her academic success, the heptathlete has enjoyed a great deal of on-track accomplishment this season and last. Not only was she named last season's conference indoor track athlete of the year, despite health issues caused by an appendectomy during early season training, but the talented hurdler has also continued her success into this season. 

"This year's a little different from previous ones because I had a teammate who was a graduate assistant, Danielle McNaney, who had the same mentality as I did when it came to training," the senior commented. "So, with her graduating, it's been a little more difficult, but it also has been fun. We've had a different training schedule, so I feel like I'm more prepared." 

This preparation has continued to show itself on the track. On the opening day of this season's Virginia Tech Invitational, Zelinskas broke the 18-year-old Liberty 55-meter hurdle record, running a 7.99 during the event's semifinals to set a new mark. The record-breaking performance helped earn her the Big South Indoor Track Athlete of the Week honor for the week of Jan. 17. She then broke McNaney's conference record for overall points in the pentathlon, setting the new mark at Liberty's On Track Open Jan. 26. 

"I don't really know what the school records are, but in my prelims, I tied the record and Coach was excited about that," the Liberty runner said as she recalled her performance at Virginia Tech. "During the semifinals, I was just trying to make it to the finals because I was in 11th place going in. I felt like I had a good start and the whole race went really well." 

As the graduating senior begins to prepare for life after Liberty and attempts to qualify for this season's NCAA national heptathlon, she has already begun applying to medical schools in her home state, such as Ohio State and Wright State. With the focus and attention she has paid to her pursuits thus far, there is little doubt that Arlene Zelinskas has the potential to enjoy a successful and accomplished future.

By Brad Salois
Athletic Media Relations Intern