A season to remember: BSU student heads to Russia to compete in Olympics
BEMIDJI — Some athletes fall in love with their sport the moment their sneakers hit the court or their cleats dig into the field.
“I hated it,” said Zezel, a Bemidji State University student from Hibbing. “I really didn’t like it.”
He found curling rather boring, sliding stones from one side of the ice to the other. But then, at the end of that first season, his team competed in a junior tournament — and won.
“Then I thought, ‘Hey this is kind of fun, I think I’ll keep doing it,’” he said.
Zezel did just that, and today he is in Sochi, Russia, a first-time Olympian preparing for Friday’s opening ceremony and for the curling competition that starts Monday.
“I didn’t expect this at all,” Zezel told the Pioneer last week. “I thought I could probably make the Olympics at some point, but never at this age, 22 years old … no, I didn’t believe that.”
Zezel deliberately began focusing on his sport in eighth grade, after he was invited to compete at a Canadian tournament. There, his team — including Aaron Wald, who first introduced Zezel to curling two years earlier — competed against some of the best junior teams in Canada.
“That was my first really competitive tournament,” Zezel said. “That was really fun and then I wanted to get to the national championships, and to try to get back to that tournament.”
At the U-18 Optimist International —the Canadian tournament —Zezel’s team placed fifth in 2005, ninth in 2006, sixth in 2007 and 2008, and ninth in 2009.
He won the Katie Beck Memorial Award, given to outstanding seconds, in 2009.
Still, he continued to improve.
In 2010 and 2011, he was named to the Junior Nationals All-Star Team, and in 2011 — after five years of finishing runner-up in the Minnesota State Junior Playdowns — he won the championship.
That same year, he finished fourth in the U.S. Mixed Doubles National Championship and was sixth at the World Junior Championships.
Moving on up
Then, with potentially a year left of juniors — he could play up to age 21 — he got a message from John Shuster, who in 2006 was on Bemidjian Pete Fenson’s bronze-winning Olympic team, the only curling medal ever won by the United States.
Shuster, having qualified for the 2010 Olympics with his own team, was looking to fill out one of his spots.
“John contacted me through a Facebook message, when I was at Hibbing Community College, asking if I wanted to curl with him … asking me if I would not play juniors and just go to men’s right away with him,” Zezel said. “That was a no-brainer.”
It took time for the new team to gel, but in 2012, the foursome won the bronze at the U.S. National Championships.
“We were ranked eighth,” Zezel said. “It was our first year playing together …. we played in five tournaments all year and were terrible, but then we got to Nationals and started playing really good together.”
This season has felt a little like a dream, Zezel said.
The team, after welcoming BSU alum Jeff Isaacson as a new third, thrived with the new lineup, again winning bronze at the U.S. National Championships in February.
They went into the U.S. trials in November in Fargo, N.D., feeling good about their chances.
“We were confident,” Zezel said. “We’d had a very good tournament season. We played against a lot of tough competition.”
There, the team beat Fenson’s rink 2-1 to move on to represent the U.S. at the Olympic qualifiers in Germany, where they defeated the Czech Republic in the last game to claim the final Olympics spot.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” Zezel said, talking about their chances for an Olympic medal. “We’ve been playing really well these last few weeks.”
Indeed, Shuster’s rink contributed to Team North America’s win over Team World in last month’s 2014 World Financial Group Continental Cup in Las Vegas.
When asked if was concerned at all about his and his teammates’ safety in Sochi, Zezel — recently named to Glamour magazine’s list of 10 “hot” male Olympians to watch — brushed the issue aside.
“We’re confident that the IOC and the local committee … can take care of that,” said Zezel, who is taking time off from his BSU studies to compete. “We’re just focused on trying to win a medal.”