Feature Stories

Sarah Zelenka, '09

Sarah Zelenka, '09

Life has been speeding up for Sarah Zelenka, ’09 since graduation. In 2009, she represented the U.S. in the World Rowing Championships and has been setting and achieving goals one after another ever since. To achieve her goal as an Olympic rower, she first had to propel herself through some rough waters.

Zelenka joined the Grand Valley Rowing Team in her freshman year with no prior experience. One of the first setbacks that she encountered was the expense of rowing. Since crew is not one of Grand Valley's varsity sports which offer some sort of financial support for a limited number of university athletes, Zelenka was not eligible for scholarships. Like many other Laker athletes, Zelenka had to pay for tuition, school supplies, and living costs out of her own pocket. Despite this challenge, she immersed herself in sports and participated not only in the rowing club, but also in intramural basketball and intramural badminton. Getting accustomed to a demanding schedule is what she says prepared her for a hectic life as an Olympic athlete.

I am very confident in the education I received at GVSU,” she said. “The great experiences I was exposed to while studying at GVSU have made a great impact on me and will stay with me forever.

When she helped win the “Under 23 World Championships” in 2009, Zelenka was invited to work out at the national training center where she tried out and competed with the Unites States rowing team. Once she had secured a spot, Zelenka helped the team win gold medals in both the 2010 World Cup and 2011 World Championships. These triumphs took her all the way to the U.S. Olympic trials where she and partner Sara Hendershot from Connecticut took home the victory and the right to represent the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics.

We ended up being about two boat lengths down on the other crew halfway through the race,” she said. “Sara [Hendershot] told me that we needed to make a big move if we were going to get back in the race. So we shifted the rate up and increased the boat speed. We overtook the other boat within 20 strokes of the finish line!

With her ultimate goal – an Olympic gold medal – in sight Zelenka has more motivation than ever. Not even the rigorous training schedule can deter the passionate Laker.

I train for three to four hours in the morning, eat, nap, train for two to three hours in the afternoon, eat, sleep… wake up and do it again,” she said. “But I can’t imagine something that would top this summer in London.

Whatever happens in London, Zelenka hopes to return to Grand Valley to pursue a graduate degree in sports administration. I could see myself coaching or serving as an athletic director someday,” she said.

In addition to a full day of training, Zelenka also works odd jobs to support herself. She babysits, dog sits, and works part-time at the YMCA in Princeton, New Jersey where she is currently living. Although the journey to the Olympics has not always been a smooth ride, her countless hours of morning training on the Grand River has helped pace herself and ultimately put her goals within reach.

"Follow your dreams,” she said. “Work hard and truly believe in yourself and everything will fall into place!

Update: Zelenka placed 4th in the women's pair in the 2012 London Olympics.

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