Our Stories

A Running Tradition

While she's only a junior this year, Sarah Zerzan's connection to Willamette University starts back in the late 1940s, when her grandfather Charles Zerzan '48 came to campus on the GI Bill after fighting with the Army in World War II. Her grandmother, then Joan Kathan '48, was here on a music scholarship. The two met, fell in love and married in their senior year.

Several decades later, Charles and Joan's children were deciding where to attend college. Five of the 12 siblings followed in their parents' footsteps and chose Willamette, including Terry Zerzan '78, Sarah's father. Terry was a star runner at Willamette, and he still holds the school record for the marathon.

So when it was Sarah's turn to choose, she already knew quite a bit about the small liberal arts university in the heart of the Willamette Valley. A runner herself, Sarah picked up the habit as a young girl in San Carlos, Calif., when her father asked her to run with him. The Willamette ties in her family are strong, but Sarah insists it was the University's academic caliber and strong running reputation that brought her here.

And while she continues the family tradition, she doesn't stand in the family shadow. Zerzan jokingly calls herself the "dumb jock" of the family -- her father is an aerospace engineer, her late mother spoke seven languages, Charles Zerzan was a doctor who cared for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and her other grandfather pioneered prestressed concrete in America. It's a lot to live up to, but Zerzan hasn't hesitated to distinguish herself in multiple ways -- academically, athletically and through her involvement in socially conscious activities.

What garnered her the most attention last fall was her string of wins with the cross country team. Zerzan plowed through a muddy 6-kilometer course in November to become the NCAA Division III women's cross country national champion. This added to Zerzan's previous honors as an All-American in cross country and winner of multiple regional races, including the Northwest Conference Championships and the West Regional Championship. Like her father, she is setting school records, in the 5K and the 6K. Her recent honors include a nomination for NCAA Division III Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year and being chosen the 2006 Ad Rutschman Small College Female Athlete of the Year at the Oregon Sports Awards.

Zerzan considers winning nationals the highlight of her athletic accomplishments so far, mainly because of what she went through to get there. Last spring during track season, Zerzan was traversing a crosswalk when a turning car struck her, throwing her 15 feet into the bike lane. Luckily, no bones were broken, although she suffered deep tissue damage in her thigh. "I'd been running better than I ever had in my life. It was frustrating to be doing so well and then lose it all," she says. "That's what made this season so great for me, to come back from something like that. Being able to still run every day is special to me."

Although running is a major passion in Zerzan's life, it's not the only one. "I come here to study, and I run because I love it," she says. "So I'm a student first." Zerzan is majoring in biochemistry with a minor in Spanish, has a 3.9 GPA and plans to go to medical school to become a pediatrician. "I've always been really fascinated by how the world works, and that's science," she says. "When I was younger, I had an amazing pediatrician who would explain things to me because I was really curious. I know it sounds cliché to say you want to help people, but I can't think of a greater way to do that than to make them feel better."

Zerzan came face-to-face with health concerns in a developing country last summer when she traveled to Costa Rica through the Organization of Tropical Studies, headquartered at Duke University. The organization includes 63 universities and research institutions from the U.S., Latin America and Australia. Its goal is to provide leadership in education, research and the responsible use of natural resources in the tropics. Through the program, Zerzan studied the epidemiological effects of dietary change in Costa Rica's indigenous populations.

As the indigenous people have become Westernized, they have also started eating more processed foods, in turn causing them to exhibit more Western health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart attacks. Zerzan went door-to-door interviewing villagers about the effects of this phenomenon. "The thing that shocked us most was the lack of awareness of these issues," she says. "In America, we know if you eat potato chips every day at every meal, you're not going to be healthy. There, they don't know that. I also was astounded at these people's lack of health care. In general, Costa Rica has good health care, but the populations I was working with were especially marginalized. Some people had to walk miles and miles to find adequate care."

On the positive side, Zerzan was also struck by the kindness and generosity of the Costa Ricans she met. If she had gone door-to-door in the U.S. and asked people for an interview, she expects many would have refused. In Costa Rica, "they were very open to it. They would invite you in and offer you juice."

Zerzan addresses global health issues while at home through one of her other campus projects -- the Student Global AIDS Campaign. She is one of of the four students who founded a chapter at Willamette. SGAC is a national grassroots movement, the largest student network committed to ending the HIV and AIDS crisis worldwide. Zerzan and the other founders discovered Willamette had the only university chapter in the region, so they organized and hosted a Pacific Northwest Summit on World AIDS Day to build the movement's momentum elsewhere.

Creating and hosting a major regional conference is a tough job, one Zerzan squeezed in while training and running at the national championships. "We're one of the only groups in the West, and that's a problem," she says. "We want to make Willamette a leader on this issue."

Zerzan's interests and achievements seem endless, and she is looking forward to this spring's track season, as well as her final cross country season in the fall. She knows that whatever choices she makes after graduation, running still will be a major part of her life. "I definitely plan to be running for the rest of my life, as long as I can. My dad still runs, but he calls it hobbling," she says, a grin spreading across her face. "He's a fast hobbler."



02-27-2007