Zerzan Runs Toward Medical Degree

PORTLAND, ORE. -- Willamette University's Sarah Zerzan was in perfect form as she rounded the last gentle, verdant curve of the NCAA Division III West Regional cross country championship at Milo McIver State Park last Saturday.

Her arms were unusually high, hands swinging almost imperceptibly just below neck level, in perfect meter with the rhythm of her legs. Her eyes were focused straight ahead, as if to burn a path to the finish line.

Terry Zerzan positioned himself at this spot for the last two laps of the 6,000-meter run. When his daughter passed the shallow, sweeping curve, he glanced down at his stop watch. "It looks," he said, with a satisfied sigh, "as if she'll break 21 minutes."

She did, with a 20:51.65 that was the best ever run in a West Regional. It was also 49 seconds ahead of second place teammate Maddie Coffman.

The defending national champion had done what she does best: funneled all her energy to one measured mission and one moment.

She put everything else aside for the occasion: the weight of all those medical school applications, the tricky footing on a course still damp from the morning dew, the occasional tug of the tender arch on her left foot and the memory of her late mother.

Small college athletes are deadly serious about their athletic pursuits, but are content with the knowledge that their college sports are an end to themselves.

Most of them go on to make their lives along some other path. The stories of academic excellence coexisting with small college sports haven't been news for years.

Even in that context, Sarah Zerzan has carved an uncommon niche at Willamette. She is arguably the best Division III woman distance runner in the United States, but that's only on meet days.

The rest of the time, Zerzan is establishing formidable academic credentials. She carries a 3.93 grade point average in biochemistry and analytical chemistry. She speaks fluent French, conversational Spanish -- learned in Costa Rica this past summer during a summer job -- and some Czech she learned from her piano teacher.

She excels at her science curriculum, but gets a huge kick out of her other classes as well: Buddhist Art, Art Philosophy, Spanish Literature and Russian.

Running is something she does frightfully well, but it isn't the reason she's at Willamette. What really lights her fire is the idea of someday having "M.D." after her name.

She got the urge when she was a little girl in California. Her female pediatrician showed her by example as she was growing up that it was not at all unusual.

But her track and cross country career is what gets her noticed by the rest of the world. Her achievements have been on a gentle uphill curve since the fall of her sophomore year.

"Her freshman year she was a solid runner," Willamette coach Matt McGuirk says. "Then she ran pretty decent in track. But in cross country her sophomore year, it was almost like she flipped a switch after the conference cross country meet.

"She went out and owned the regional race, then went on to establish herself as an all-America runner. She took her running to a new level."

Terry Zerzan, himself a college runner at Willamette, thinks she got a lot of it -- the gift for languages, the running grace, the broad intellect, the compassion that fits the medical professional, the determination -- from her mother.

He only wishes Lisa Anderson Zerzan was here in person to see it.

Margaret Elisabeth Anderson was a citizen of the world. She took her English degree from Carleton College -- ironically, also in Northfield, Minn. -- and went on a lark with a friend to India. A two-month stay turned into three years. Lisa Anderson converted to Buddhism and considered becoming a nun. She learned Sanskrit -- one of the seven languages she spoke -- and translated for the highest lamas.

Then she went back to the United States and took a master's degree at the University of Washington -- in mathematics and architecture.

Lisa and Terry Zerzan had a son, Peter, and on Nov. 24, 1986, a daughter: Sarah Elisabeth.

Four months later, Lisa Zerzan was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Doctors gave her a year to live. She made it four. That allowed Sarah just enough time to form memories of her mother that fortify her life today.

"When they knew she was going to die," Sarah says, "they brought a hospital bed home so she could die at home. After supper my brother and I would go to the hospital bed in the living room and she would read to us."

Lisa Anderson Zerzan died sometime during the night or morning of Dec. 7, 1990.

Terry Zerzan still feels for what his daughter missed. "There's a lot of suffering and pain in the world," he says, "but I realize as time goes on how difficult it is to not have your mom. She grew up in a house with two males.

"There were a lot of things to learn, and fortunately we had good friends and relatives to help. But she had a lot of things to pick up without her mom."

For the most part, Sarah Zerzan is content with her mother's memory.

"The best way I can describe her," she says, "is to say that she's a big part of my life and always will be. She gave my brother and I life. She's an inspiration.

"But sometimes it's been difficult for me to reconcile. We were raised Catholic, but she was Buddhist. She would believe that she is reincarnated.

"I believe there's a heaven and I believe my mother is there. But in her world, she might be a 10-year-old child somewhere. I don't really know."

On the morning of Nov. 18, 2006, in Wilmington, Ohio, McGuirk pulled Zerzan, a junior, aside and told her something he thought she should hear.

"He said, 'You can win this,' " Zerzan says. "I was like 'What?' And he said, 'Don't be scared of anybody.' "

Zerzan hadn't thought about winning the NCAA Division III cross country championship, which would be run that day at Voice of America Park. She was hoping to be an all-America again and maybe -- maybe -- finish in the top 10.

"But Matt wouldn't tell me anything," she says, "if he didn't think I really could do it. He knew that I was scared to even think about winning."

The flat course at Voice of America Park was a mess that day. A series of weather systems had flooded the grounds with rain. The sky on that Saturday morning was clear, but the course was guaranteed to turn into a mudhole at the first footstep.

Zerzan characteristically blocked it out and got out quick to stay away from a certain mud cluster. Her time of 22 minutes, 31 seconds had everything to do with the mud, but nothing to do with the result: Zerzan crossed the finish line 20 seconds ahead of Dickinson's Cait Bradley.

Zerzan thought she had a good day going "about a mile, mile and a half into it. What's strange about the race is that I don't remember much about it. I just remember thinking that when we got to the smoother part, that this is where I had to push it.

"If you run through the mud to get somewhere comfortable, you can rest. But I didn't rest."

Used with permission of The Oregonian.

Sarah Zerzan has excelled at Willamette as both an athlete and a scholar.

Sarah Zerzan has excelled at Willamette as both an athlete and a scholar.