Regina senior runs for her cancer-fighting coach, sense of accomplishment

The Regina cross country team opened their fall season with a third place finish in the Livonia Lamplighter Invite. From left, they are: Elizabeth Ambroggio, Sofia Switalski, Natalie Lentine, Gianna Switalski, Jessica Jarski, Sammy Brown, Grace Zdankiewicz and Kennedy Roskopp. (Photo courtesy of Regina High School)

WARREN — “When I run, I have this feeling that I’ve accomplished something.”

Grace Zdankiewicz has been running since she was in third grade. Heading into her senior year at Regina High School in Warren, she can look back on a list of noteworthy achievements as the result of her grit and determination to succeed.

And more will come.

“She’s as tough as nails,” says Gregg Golden, starting his 25th year coaching cross country and track at Regina. “She works awfully hard. She makes coaching a lot easier.”

“I am aware of being No. 1 on the team,” Grace responds. “I want to lead by example.”

In the eighth grade at St. Anne, she ran two miles in 12:20 to win the Hanson’s Middle Schools Invitational.

Even before Regina started practices her freshman year, for extra training, she worked out with the boys at nearby De La Salle High School. She held her own and earned their respect. They gave her a nickname, “Fred.”

In the ninth and 10th grade, she played basketball in the winter along with cross country in the fall and track in the spring. She canned a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to help the Saddlelites win a district semi-final game.

Grace committed to concentrate exclusively on running in her junior year. “I wanted to train year-round,” she said. Her winter schedule had her competing indoors at venues such as Saginaw Valley State or Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti or at a showcase event in Geneva, Ohio. She spiced up her summer workouts with weekend races in invitationals ranging from Traverse City to Sterling Heights.

In the beginning, it was her mother, Annie, who inspired Grace. “She ran for the pure enjoyment of it. Even now she runs. I’d say she runs more than me,” Grace said. Annie is also one of Regina’s assistant coaches.

Then, there’s coach Gregg. “He inspires me so much. He has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. But sometimes he’s not able to run. So, I run for those who can’t always do it. Even on days when he has chemo, he’s with us by sending us messages.”

Golden has been Grace’s coach for almost as long as he’s been fighting the cancer, about four years. “He’s defying the odds,” she says.

In the spring, the coronavirus sidelined Grace for three weeks. “I got it fairly bad,” she says, “but I kept running through the whole thing by myself. The (Catholic League and MHSAA state) finals would start when I got back. I told myself that I couldn’t stop now.”

She has since received two jabs of the COVID vaccines.

She’s been unstoppable the last two years. In cross country, she won nine races last fall, including repeat victories in the CHSL finals and MHSAA regionals.

In track, Grace won the 1600-meter seven times and the 3200 five times. In both events, she won the CHSL championship and the MHSAA regional.

Last Friday, Golden sent Grace and seven teammates to the Lamplighter Invite under the lights at Livonia’s Ford Field. “It was a cool event,” the coach says. “We started at dusk and finished in the dark. It was the first time the girls had raced at night.”

Grace came in second with a 20:18 time. “I didn’t like running in the dark. I couldn’t see well. Combined with the hot, muggy weather, I felt dizzy,” she said.

But she found another source of inspiration.

She was 59 seconds behind winner Meghan Ford, a sophomore from Mason, who finished second in the MHSAA Division 2 finals last year, 13 slots ahead of Grace. “I knew I wouldn’t catch her tonight, but I will be up there with her” Nov. 6 at the state finals.

Golden was pleased with the team’s third-place finish, particularly that two of the team’s top five runners were freshmen: Elizabeth Ambroggio (22nd, 23:02) and Natalie Lentine (26th, 23:23). Sophomore Kennedy Roskopp came in 10th with a 21:07 clocking and senior Jessica Jarski, 19th at 22:16.

Rounding out Regina’s crew were senior Samantha Brown (33rd, 23:57), sophomore Gianna Switalski (58th, 27:44) and freshman Sofia Switalski (62nd, 28:47).

This Saturday, Regina will be one of 10 CHSL schools among 19 Catholic high schools in the Michigan Catholic Cross Country Invitational sponsored by the Knights of Columbus at the St. Francis Retreat Center in Dewitt, north of Lansing.

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].