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Reborn in America

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May 20, 2008
Gary Pine
All the pieces were there. Laid out and available for full view. The problem was that Zora Golcevska didn’t know how to fit them together to form a big picture, and in every effort she put forth the exercise only became more maddening.

In time, she was mad at God, whoever He might be.

So 2 years ago when Golcevska’s junior college coach Larry Silva suggested that she continue her track & field career at a Christian university by the name of Azusa Pacific, Golcevska instinctively laughed out loud.

“Coach was tolerant enough with me to laugh at his idea,” said Zora as she began to retrace the steps toward one of the most difficult yet significant decisions in her life. “He convinced me to look at APU. I like challenges in my life, and this was one of the biggest ones because it was a Christian school. I was suspicious of what was going on in a Christian’s life.”

Ten years earlier, gifted with unique athletic talent, Golcevska was on the fast track – literally and figuratively – toward national fame in her home country of Slovakia. She was one of the nation’s top young track & field stars, excelling in the long jump, high hurdles and heptathlon. Olympic Games were in her dreams until the biggest hurdle in her life became too large to clear.

In 1984, while the world was turning its eyes toward Los Angeles and the return of the Summer Olympic Games, 8-year old Zora Golcevska was on the verge of losing her life. Only a year prior, he alcoholic father had left the family, and her mother, Tatiana, was now struggling with her own unmet and oftentimes shattered dreams. So with little Zora cradled in her arms, Tatiana, was about to publicly declare that she could not handle life anymore. She moved to the balcony of their fifth-story apartment in downtown Bratislava, seconds away from leaping off and ending two lives.

Puzzle piece one – Zora had inadvertently left the apartment door open, perhaps causing the outburst from her mom, but nonetheless offering a neighbor the opportunity to hear Zora’s scream and enter into the apartment to save both lives.

Tatiana was arrested for endangering the life of her daughter and in the subsequent months she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Zora’s childhood, as she knew it, ceased to exist at that moment, and by her description, her life became “schizophrenic” privately living at home to take care of her mom in one life while developing a very public and fledgling track & field career in the other.

Puzzle piece two – As Zora’s athletic accomplishments grew, her reputation increased as well. She was afforded opportunities to travel Europe, learn new languages, and support her family. Her on-the-track success became a release for the stress and pressures of dealing with an ill mother.

By the time she was 17, Zora was competing in World Cup track & field events and Slovakian officials had their eyes on the promising national star. At the same time, however, Tatiana, had become increasingly dependent on Zora, who instead of handing over care of her mom to her grandparents, opted to walk away from track & field and stay home in Bratislava to begin a business career in advertising.

“I was bitter (about giving up track),” said Zora. “It was really sad when I decided to be only a business woman.”

Puzzle piece three -- What Zora also gave up was a chance at an American education. Many of her athletic colleagues took their skills on the track to the United States in exchange for a 4-year education and a cherished college degree. While friends left Slovakia for the western world, Zora’s aspirations vanished from her dreams

With similar focus and passion that she had displayed on the track, Zora spent the next 8 years pouring herself into a business career, working her way up in the European advertising world so that by the time she was 25 she was offered a CEO position at the firm for which she worked.

She was making good money and was a developing star, just as she had been in the Slovakian track & field world. She had taken good care of her mother, who never recovered from her illness and by January of 2003 had passed away.

Puzzle piece four – Those close to Tatiana, including Zora, believed part of her emotional struggles came from unmet dreams and hopes for her own life. She could not pull herself out of the worlds of “what ifs” and “if onlys,” spiraling deeper into despair and adding to Zora’s mounting challenges in caring for her mom.

Always in the back of Zora’s mind was the thought that some day she would return to her first love – track & field. Forever an active person, she found ways to keep in shape if ever the opportunity to return to track & field afforded itself.

Then, a year after her mother’s death, the opportunity came in a phone call, and, though unbeknownst to her, all the pieces of her life began to come together.

Some of those friends who had left Slovakia for an American education called Zora encouraging her to come to the United States and resurrect a dormant track & field career. They would pave the way for her track comeback, but in order for her to do so she would first have to decline the offer to become the CEO of the advertising company. The decision was easy.

“I realized that my biggest fear in life is that one day I would become the same person as my mother,” said Zora, “that I would cry about the things I could do but never gave it a shot.

“I wanted to face the fear. I wanted to do something with my life, and I had a strong personal belief in myself that I could go back on the track. I knew if I gave it 100-percent then I couldn’t blame myself that I didn’t try.”

Chasing the ghosts of past achievements, Zora landed in Santa Monica, Calif., home of the world famous Santa Monica Track & Field Club where Carl Lewis trained for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She enrolled at Santa Monica College and at the age of 27 resumed her track & field career, a little less sharp than 8 years previous and with plenty of rust to work off.

In 2 years time, though, Golcevska methodically worked her way back and as a 2006 sophomore she declared her re-emergence in track & field by becoming the state junior college runner-up in the high hurdles and an all-state honoree in the 200 meters.

Her age, now 28, limited her collegiate opportunities, but NAIA rules permitted Golcevska to compete at one of its 300-member institutions, and thus Silva brought up the name of Azusa Pacific, the premier track & field program in the NAIA.

Though track & field was becoming a rewarding experience again, Zora was not at peace. The pain, agony and struggle of her mom were still fresh upon her heart, as was the eventual loss of her. Personal sacrifices seemed unrewarding. Lost opportunities remained just that – lost and perhaps never to be found again.

“I can admit it now, but I was really angry with God for all those years prior to Azusa Pacific,” said Zora. “God was someone to blame for all the hardship and burden in my life.”

That all changed in a moment’s notice the day she took up her coach’s advice and visited Azusa Pacific.

“Within a couple of seconds that I drove into the parking lot at Azusa Pacific, I experienced peace of mind that I was looking for all those years,” said Zora. “I will never forget that. There were other moments that were really memorable and changed a view in my life, but that first moment started the whole journey.”

While the journey began with her arrival at Azusa Pacific, it fully blossomed her first day on a team full of Christians.

“I just totally felt like I fit in, like I had found a new family,” said Zora. “The people didn’t have to say anything special, the feeling was just so right.”

In Azusa Pacific head coach Mike Barnett, Zora found someone who was genuine, honest and transparent in his Christian faith. Neither was he weak as she had expected to find in Christians. The 2 of them began an open dialogue about God, Christ and faith, and everything that Zora thought she knew about God was washed away with a new understanding that created a new personal relationship with Christ. Barnett gave Zora her first bible and within 8 months of coming to Azusa Pacific, she was publically baptized, declaring her faith in Christ.

Her teammates rallied around her, including GSAC champions Ruthie Wilhelm and Mandy Pohja. And the age difference, sometimes as much as 12 years from her freshman teammates, had no bearing on friendships and support.

Relaxed and at peace in her life, Zora is returning to her track & field form of yesteryear. Arguably, she is the greatest female athlete in school history. Earlier this year, she broke the school records in both the heptathlon (5,205 points) and pentathlon (3,642), and she ranks second in school history in the 100-meter high hurdles (13.99) and long jump (18’ 10¾”). She is a 7-time NAIA All-American and reigning national champion in the pentathlon.

This week she will lead a strong contingent of Cougars into the NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Championship Meet in Edwardsville, Ill. Azusa Pacific is a narrow favorite to successfully defend its title and collect its fourth outdoor championship in the past 6 years when the 3-day meet opens Thursday (May 22) on the campus of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. For her part, Golcevska will lead the Cougar charge in the heptathlon, long jump and high jump.

Indeed the pieces of her life are coming together like she never imagined. Zora looks back now and sees how God’s hand left an apartment door open, how it gave her success in track & field to experience a moment of relief from a stressful home life, how it led friends to pave the path for her to come to the United States, and how His hand gave her motivation to not be defeated by unmet dreams.

“This experience at Azusa Pacific has helped me overcome my past,” said Zora. “APU basically gave me a second chance in life that I needed. I have more peace in my life and I’m closer to God, but I’m still on this journey.

“I was born on the resurrection day of Jesus Christ, March 26, 1978, Easter Sunday. People always kept telling me I was blessed but I really couldn’t see that happening until I got to APU.”