A-K Valley pair become track and field masters
Donna Zukas brought home several awards from the U.S. Track and Field Association’s Masters Outdoor Championships from July 13-16 in Baton Rouge, La.
The Apollo resident, competing in the 60-64 age group, earned silver in the pentathlon, bronze in the long jump and placed fourth in the javelin, triple jump and high jump.
“You see people at nationals who you’ve competed against before and made friends with,” said Zukas, 61.
For Zukas, masters track and field is a venture that began 10 years ago. The Kiski Area graduate wasn’t as sports-minded in high school and early adulthood as she is now, but, she said, she has tried to be active throughout her adult life.
“I started running when I was 38, and things kind of evolved from there,” said Zukas, who also has played in co-ed volleyball leagues and is a member of the pickleball club at Allegheny Valley YMCA in Natrona Heights.
Leechburg resident Kenneth Lacey, unlike Zukas, just began competing in masters track and field last month at the Slippery Rock Combined Events Championships (heptathlon, decathlon and pentathlon).
Lacey, 63, who was a PIAA basketball referee for seven years, is certified as a personal trainer. When Lacey began working with Zukas to improve her fitness level, Zukas returned the favor and introduced him to masters track and field.
“She thought I would be a good athlete and would do well in competition,” Lacey said. “I am pretty fit, so I gave it a try.”
Zukas and Lacey traveled to Slippery Rock for the combined championships, which featured 54 athletes from all over the U.S.
Zukas was one of six women ranging in age from 22 to 75 entered in the heptathlon.
“You form bonds with the other women who are competing. That’s what is truly meaningful above and beyond just trying to win a medal or take first in your events,” she said.
Lacey fared well in his first competition. He placed fourth in the decathlon for the 60-64 age group.
The heptathlon’s events vary for men and women. The women’s heptathlon features the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 dash, long jump, javelin and 800 run. The men have the 60 dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 60 hurdles, pole vault and 1,000 run.
The decathlon — with the same events for men and women — consists of the 100, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400, 100/110 hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500.
Lacey competed at Slippery Rock against several renowned masters athletes, including Noel Ruebel, the world record-holder in the decathlon for the 60-64 age group.
The oldest athlete in the decathlon at Slippery Rock was George Roudebush from Chardon, Ohio, who took to the track at age 92.
“Competing against someone like (Ruebel), that was such an honor and a highlight in my young track and field career,” Lacey said. “I beat him in the 100 dash. It was such great competition. I found out I could compete. It was a good feeling. I gained a lot of self-confidence.”
Lacey used that self-confidence to enter the national outdoor championships in Baton Rouge.
Temperatures at or above 100 degrees for the national competition took their toll.
“Others were used to training in the hot weather,” he said. “I kind of ran out of gas quickly, but I kept battling. It’s a big lesson to be learned about conditioning.”
Lacey earned a silver medal in the 300 hurdles at nationals and added a bronze in the 100 hurdles and a fifth in the high jump.
He raced against former Olympian Oscar Payton in the 100. Payton placed second, and Lacey took eighth.
“Oscar gave me the best advice for having a good start,” Lacey said.
“To be there in the final 100s with guys running it their whole life, it was a great experience. It almost was intimidating when they announced everyone else and all their accomplishments. Forget the medals I won. The 100 was the highlight of nationals for me. It was a dream come true.”
Lacey said he couldn’t accomplish what he has so far in track and field without Zukas’ advice and encouragement.
“Donna is such a great coach,” he said. “She is strong and fit, and she works so hard. She dedicates herself to her workouts.”
Zukas and Lacey are focusing on the Potomac Valley Games on Labor Day weekend in Alexandria, Va.
Zukas also has an eye on international competition.
The World Masters Athletics Championships are in Spain in 2018 and Toronto in 2020.
She competed in the heptathlon for women 60-64 at the world championships in Perth, Australia, last October, and, she said, she hopes to do it again in Toronto.
“It was my first time competing internationally, and it was amazing,” said Zukas, who took sixth overall, first in the javelin (65 feet, 5 inches) and second in the shot put (20-9¾).
“Australia is some place I always wanted to visit, and it also was a great opportunity to see how I measured up against some of the best in the world. It was like being at the Olympics. They play the national anthem of the person who wins a gold medal. There were over 100 countries participating.”