SPORTS

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May 30, 2008

Versatility enabled track’s Rodgers to contribute in many events

At first, it's hard to tell if fourth-year Zach Rodgers is well-rounded or just indecisive. Maybe he couldn't choose between Crown and Crerar, so he got top grades while becoming an all-conference track star. He couldn't pick just one specialty in the classroom, so he went with three, and majored in chemistry, physics, and biology. Rather than settling on a single track-and-field event, he opted for 10, and did the decathlon.

As it turns out, such a range of activities and experiences was exactly what Rodgers wanted, and the opportunity to pursue several interests was one of the things that convinced him to become a Maroon.

"What struck me about Chicago," Rodgers said, "is that the track and field and cross country athletes, rather than being the less-academically interested 'jocks,' were, in fact, some of the more interesting people I met when I visited.

"That sort of contrasted with some of the other schools I visited, particularly the D-I schools like Rice and Princeton, where the athletes were very clearly there to do athletics. At Chicago, the athletes were just a lot of really interesting people."

Rodgers, a native of Nashville, TN, arrived at Chicago with backgrounds in a variety of track and field events, making him a natural choice for the decathlon, a two-day competition during which participants do the 100-meter, 400-meter, long jump, high jump, shot put, 110-meter hurdles, 1500-meter, discus, pole vault, and javelin. The athletes receive a score in each event, with their total scores determining how they place overall.

"I never had one single event which stood out as being much better," Rodgers said, "so decathlon naturally made sense as something to do, since I was good at everything but not extremely good at anything."

Though the decathlon is not included in the UAA's indoor and outdoor championships, training for it put Rodgers in position to contribute to the team in other events. As a rookie, he finished third in the triple jump at the conference's indoor meet and since then has also placed in the long jump and high jump during Association championships.

While he was picking up points at UAA showdowns, Rodgers was also progressing as a decathlete, so that by the time he was a third-year, he was scoring high enough to qualify for Nationals in the event. With 2007's 16th-highest score among D-III decathletes, Rodgers was invited to the NCAA outdoor championships, where he improved his performance enough to finish 11th, three spots shy of All-American honors.

En route to that 11th-place finish, Rodgers tallied 6,415 points, the most ever by a Maroon. Jay Berwanger, who set the previous Chicago record in 1936, was a multi-talented guy like Rodgers. In 1935, he won the inaugural Heisman Trophy.

"I was happy about breaking the school record...last year," Rodgers said. "That had been a long-term goal of mine, so breaking that and doing it at the national meet was special."

For Rodgers, though, the best was yet to come. This winter, he scored points in four events—the long jump, the triple jump, the high jump, and the 55-meter—as the men's team won its first UAA indoor crown since 2002. To sweeten the accomplishment that much more, the women's team got its first ever conference title to complete a Chicago sweep of first place.

"All throughout my 10 years doing track, I'd never had the experience of winning a team championship, and it's something we've worked toward for years," Rodgers said. "It was really exciting to get that, especially getting it on both sides, men's and women's."

As the squad transitioned to the outdoor season, Rodgers took one more chance to show his versatility. In mid-April, he began concentrating on the triple jump, an event that wasn't previously his focus, in hopes of qualifying for Nationals, which were held this past weekend. Sure enough, Rodgers hit the provisional-qualify mark and was seeded 11th at the NCAA meet.

"Zach made it to nationals in the triple jump because he can perform under pressure like no other," second-year Terrence Robertson said. "Aside from his focus at the track meets, his concentration on technique at practice allowed his strength to flow throughout his jumps, resulting in massive jumps that landed him at Nationals."

At Nationals, Rodgers was 11th in the preliminaries and didn't make the finals. He wasn't thrilled with the result that left him out of attaining All-American with Chicago, but he did end up with the top finish among the Maroons' national qualifiers for the men.

With his collegiate career winding down, Rodgers has picked up some hardware as mementos. Last week, he won the Mary Jean Mulvaney Scholar-Athlete Award, which goes to the fourth-year with three or more varsity letters who has the highest GPA during his last two years at Chicago. He also got the Ted Haydon Medal for earning the most points at the indoor and outdoor UAA meets.

Rodger's academic accomplishments haven't gone unrewarded, either. Last June, ESPN The Magazine named Rodgers to its Academic All-American squad for track and field and cross country.

Perhaps the greatest recognition of what Rodgers has done as a student will come this August, though, when he matriculates at UPenn to begin an M.D./Ph.D. program.

As for athletics, Rodgers plans to keep participating in college track meets as an unattached competitor.

"I just started working on [the triple jump] seriously this year, and I still feel like there's a little bit more that I'd like to accomplish in that event," Rodgers said.

And after that?

"I think eventually I'll do something more old-person friendly, you know, triathlon or distance running," Rodgers said.