Obstacles can't break her stride

Cross country: Less than a year after being told she would never run again and undergoing surgery on both legs, Dulaney's Tenke Zoltani is running better than ever.

November 08, 2001|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Tenke Zoltani runs with a new purpose these days.

As her high school cross country career winds down, the Dulaney senior will take her last crack at breaking the Hereford course record - a mark she missed by one second at the Bull Run a month ago - at Saturday's state championship meet.

Despite that lofty goal and the imminent deadline to reach it, the pressure doesn't overwhelm her anymore. Zoltani's competitive drive is sharper than ever, but her appreciation for the simple joy of being able to run is a reward in itself for the 16-year-old who, less than a year ago, was told she would never run again.

The pain in her shins started during her sophomore year.

Still, it didn't hurt enough to stop her from winning four state titles that year and taking All-Metro Runner of the Year honors in cross country and track and field.

By last fall, Zoltani knew something was really wrong.

The pain grew so intense that she had to take more and more time off. She skipped the Baltimore County cross country championships but gutted out the state final and finished second. In New York City on Thanksgiving weekend, she ran 37th at the Northeast qualifier for the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships.

Then the pain got to be too much.

Zoltani made the rounds of orthopedic surgeons looking for an antidote, but the first three doctors she saw couldn't give her one. One doctor even told her she would never race again.

Finally, the fourth doctor diagnosed her with exertional compartment syndrome, a condition in which the muscles of the lower leg expand too much for the sheaths that surround them.

In March, Zoltani had surgery on both legs. She spent two weeks on crutches but recovered quickly enough to win the state Class 4A title at 3,200 meters Memorial Day weekend.

While her shins reveal the scars of her physical ordeal, the words of that doctor left an even deeper impression.

"When he said I could never run again, I didn't want to go to school. I thought my life was over."

Dulaney coach Chad Boyle remembers that day well.

"Tenke's pretty stable emotionally. She doesn't get real up or real down," Boyle said, "but after that doctor told her she should just quit, she came into my classroom and she was crying."

Zoltani credits her support system - family, friends, teammates and coaches - and a strong faith in God with getting her through the physical and emotional struggles.

She emerged a stronger runner. Her times this season are the best of her career. Without being pushed, she clocked 18:53 at the Bull Run, just one second off the Hereford course record set by Quince Orchard's Karen Pulliam at last year's state meet.

"Her greatest trait is her tenacity and ability to persevere," Boyle said. "Whatever happens in her future, no disappointment will appear that disappointing. Her injury has forced her to appreciate her talent and her ability to excel in the sport."

Bryn Mawr's Nyam Kagwima, the only runner to beat Zoltani this season, ran 61 seconds behind Zoltani at Hereford's Bull Run and has no doubt her rival can break the course record.

"I really admire her speed, especially at Hereford. That course is tough and for her to run as fast and as well as she did, that is just ... wow," Kagwima said. "That is her course and you know it from the time you get on there."

Running is in Zoltani's genes. Her grandfather, Geza Zoltani, ran internationally for Hungary. His granddaughter, who speaks fluent Hungarian, didn't focus solely on running until this year.

At 7, she followed her older brothers into soccer. Later, she swam for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club until her freshman year, but she loved soccer.

Boyle heard about Zoltani's speed and recruited her off the Lions soccer team to run indoor track as a freshman. Even winning the state two-mile title in her first season of running didn't persuade her to give up soccer. She opted for cross country over Dulaney soccer the following fall but continued to play club ball.

With all of her running success over the next two years, including six state titles, Zoltani finally, although somewhat reluctantly, let soccer go. Already pressed for time juggling a full slate of activities while keeping up her 3.95 grade-point average, Zoltani decided to concentrate on running, where her potential seemed greatest to excel in college and, perhaps, beyond.

To build on her natural athletic gifts, Zoltani works just as hard on mental conditioning as she does on physical conditioning.

She incorporates meditation and visualization techniques and has learned to focus on herself rather than on other runners.

Zoltani's confidence and her tendency to keep to herself in mental preparation before a meet can sometimes come across as arrogance, but her Lions teammates say she's anything but arrogant.

"She likes to give off that impression, that she's going to be No. 1 and don't mess with her," said senior Christine Meyers, who transferred to Dulaney a year ago.

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