(Note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with athletes who will be competing at the first-ever winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria this winter. The first interview was with Sean Doherty, the second with Anna Kubek, and the third with Nick Proell.)
When the Youth Olympic Games kick off in Innsbruck, Austria this January, one American biathlete will have a lot of experience on her side.
It’s not her own experience: neither of the two girls named to the U.S. squad has raced internationally before.
But Aleksandra Zakrzewska, a high school student from South Burlington, Vermont, has been spending more time with a very knowledgeable coach since she qualified for the team. Algis Shalna won Olympic gold representing the Soviet Union in 1984, and he happens to coach the Vermont Collegiate biathlon team, which like Zakrzewska trains out of Jericho, Vermont. Shalna has been helping the young athlete out more since she learned that she was Olympic-bound.
Even though Zakrzewska doesn’t have any international experience of her own, a little inspiration and a lot of focus fuel her drive to the top. This is apparent in other parts of her life, too. Even though Zakrzewska is just starting her junior year of high school, she’s balancing a workload that would make even college students crings: advanced placement classes, high school teams, the school band, and an hour-long round-trip drive to biathlon practice.
It might seem like lot for a young woman to handle, but Zakrzewska has proven herself in all of her endeavors. For two years in a row, she’s finished in the top fifteen of the statewide math talent search, and she also won several high school ski races last winter. That level of focus – which she displays on a daily basis – is what will ultimately determine her success in Innsbruck.
FasterSkier caught up with the Vermont native last week to see how her training was going.
FasterSkier: Can you tell me a little bit about your history as a skier – did you ski when you were growing up?
Aleksandra Zakrzewska: When I was 4, my family started cross country skiing. My sister and I joined the local Bill Koch League (BKL) club and started racing the next winter. Unfortunately, after about two years, the program was moved to right after school, and since I lived over half an hour away, I couldn’t come to the practices anymore. I still skied once in a while with my parents, but I didn’t train for racing. I started training again in eighth grade with the high school and have been doing that since.
FS: What made you want to take up biathlon?
AZ: I did a BKL race at the end of one winter that was a paintball biathlon. I found it really cool and a few months later my mom found a running biathlon race at Jericho. I went, missed every single target, but still liked it. That day we also found out that there was a club that I could join to start training biathlon, so I did.
FS: When did you start shooting, and how is that portion of the sport coming along?
AZ: That running biathlon race was the first time I had ever held a gun. I started shooting when I started training with the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club (EABC). I have been skiing for a lot longer than I have been shooting, so that part of biathlon has always been easier for me. I did two training camps over the summer, though, and my shooting has been getting a lot more consistent.
FS: Who do you train with?
AZ: I train with EABC in Jericho. I’m lucky to have a range to practice at so close to home, where there is a club to train with and where they hold races like NorAm’s. It’s too bad that there aren’t more places like this around, because it prevents a lot of people from joining the sport.
FS: I am assuming that you also do high school races for skiing. How do you balance ski training and biathlon training? How do you find time for everything?
AZ: I split practices – I go to Jericho on Mondays and Wednesdays, and train with my school on other days, and then I have to miss some high school races for biathlon. My ski coaches don’t really mind – they know I am still skiing. The problem for me is not with balancing nordic and biathlon, those fit in pretty nicely together, but with balancing the rest of my life. I take school very seriously and play two instruments. It’s difficult to coordinate the time commitments that each of these pieces of my life require.
FS: Have you ever raced internationally before?
AZ: No. This will be a first for me.
FS: Is it intimidating to think of racing against athletes from all over the world? Is that something you are thinking about at this point?
AZ: I’m not thinking about it too much yet, but when I do, I guess it is a little intimidating, but also really exciting. A race is a race, not matter who is in it.
FS: Has getting named to the Youth Olympic Games team changed your plans for the summer, fall, and early winter at all?
AZ: Yes, it has. First, I had to change my summer travel plans so that I could be in Jericho for the final qualifying races. Now that I qualified for the team, my training has changed, too. I normally run cross country in the fall. This year I am still on the team, but I’m doing a lot less training for running and a lot more for biathlon, including some more personalized training with Algis Shalna, a former Olympic coach and champion. I’m only racing at a few of the bigger meets to score for my XC team, but running has fallen a lot on the priority list. I’m also already planning for missing midterms and two other weeks of school. I’m taking four AP classes this year, so I really need to be planning ahead for that.
FS: What are you looking forward to most about the trip?
AZ: I am really excited about the whole thing. I’m honored that I qualified to go, I love traveling to other countries, and I am really looking forward to meeting athletes from other countries. I’m nervous about racing at such a big event, but I think it will be a great experience. I can’t wait.