Zelinka adapting to life in Connecticut, with plenty of help from others

TORONTO - Jessica Zelinka has to take a pass on an upcoming warm weather training camp in Phoenix next month — what would have been an ideal opportunity for one of Canada's top track and field athletes to work with an actual coach.

Zelinka's been without a coach since she moved to the U.S. with her husband. She also lost her funding for her three-year-old daughter to travel with her around the same time.

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"It's too hard paying for Anika to either go with me to Phoenix or to bring her through Toronto and drop her off in London (Ont., where her parents live)," Zelinka said. "In the past, she was covered if I needed to go to training camp, they would help with childcare.

"So I have to pick and choose which training camps are worth paying for."

The 31-year-old was in Toronto on Wednesday to attend the Canadian Olympic Committee's announcement of an eight-year partnership with Canadian Tire.

She moved to Stamford, Conn., this past fall when her husband Nathaniel Miller, an Olympian in water polo, took a job there.

Zelinka, who dominated Athletics Canada's annual awards for 2012 by picking up three honours, learned from the sport's national governing body that she would be losing funding for such things as childcare she received from Own The Podium in the leadup to the London Olympics.

"What our program has decided is for the first couple of years within the quad (four years between Olympics), we're not going to be as focused on particular individuals, we're going to be more focused on funding the systems," Athletics Canada CEO Rob Guy said Wednesday.

"We wouldn't, for anybody, be providing some of those real sort of extra additional things like childcare. It's certainly not just Jessica. She certainly has the opportunity — obviously she is a great athlete and had a great summer last year — to be involved in our training camps, the warm weather camps that we do, and we look forward to some good stuff for her next summer."

Zelinka was seventh in both the heptathlon and 100-metre hurdles at the London Games, four years after she finished fifth in the Beijing Olympic heptathlon. She booked her ticket to London in spectacular fashion, winning the heptathlon at the trials in a Canadian record performance and also winning the hurdles.

She's set her sights on the 2016 Rio Olympics, despite losing her longtime coach Les Gramantik.

She would have had the opportunity to work with Gramantik and hurdles coach Gary Winckler at the Phoenix camp. But Gramantik isn't providing her with training plans, saying he wasn't comfortable coaching her from afar.

"He said, 'Coaching is actually coaching, you have to be there, you have to be able to adjust the program, watch the athlete,'" Zelinka said.

The situation isn't so dire right now. She's only competing in hurdles this season to allow herself a break from the training for the seven-discipline heptathlon.

"So it's not like I need a lot of technical help with anything," she said.

In Connecticut, Zelinka is working with strength and conditioning coach Ben Prentiss, better known for the NHL players he works with such as Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty.

Zelinka trained alongside Pacioretty and several other NHLers before the lockout ended.

"(Pacioretty) is one of Nathaniel's favourite players. I asked him for Christmas 'Oh can you be my husband's Christmas present so you can go on a date together?' He's like 'sure.' But then the hockey started again and he was gone," Zelinka said, laughing.

Prentiss isn't charging Zelinka.

"He's doing it for free because he just likes working with athletes who are passionate about what they're doing," Zelinka said.

She also lost any kind of medical support she received when she was based at Calgary's National Sport Centre, but a top physiotherapist in Connecticut — whose clientele consists of mostly pro athletes — is treating her at a reduced rate.

"He charges $500 an hour, and he said 'Just pay what you can, whatever's within your budget.' So right now I'm giving him $30 a session," Zelinka said.

"Things in Connecticut are working out due to a lot of people helping me out until I figure out funding."

Training with Prentiss has been a big departure from what she was used to. Zelinka, one of the fittest athletes in her sport, said she's starting from the base again, working on her "weaker areas."

"I'm not lifting heavy weights right now, whereas before I'd be lifting three times a week at this point of the season for sure," she said. "I want to take this year to gradually get into it.

"It's totally different, and that's what this year is all about in my mind. I have four years. And that's my goal, four years still, I'm not trying to win worlds this year or do anything fancy."

She's looking forward to focusing on just the hurdles, an event she's proved that she's also competitive at on the world level.

"Mentally I'm just taking a break from the training for heptathlon," she said. "I can't see at this point in my career another four years of push push push training as a heptathlete. It's nice to switch things up, and just doing the hurdles is something totally new for me and exciting."

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