The road to the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a difficult one for Zara Northover, filled with injury and financial hardship. The Sewanhaka High School graduate grew up in Elmont and realized her dream competing for the Jamaican National Team.
She qualified for the Olympics in the physically demanding shot put despite a bulging disc in her back and a torn meniscus in her knee. Northover, whose parents are Jamaican, only had surgery once she returned from China.
But when you hear her words, you realize it was a transformative experience.
“It was all worth it stepping off that plane into China,’’ Northover wrote via email from Arizona. “It was all worth it as I walked in the Opening Ceremonies shaking hands with other athletes, coaches, officials from different countries all over the world. It was truly an amazing and breathtaking experience that I will never forget.
“There was a serenity in knowing that I am standing in a place with people from countries who are constantly at war with each other but yet we’re all in one stadium, living in one village and competing for the same goals. We were happy and we were sharing an experience of a lifetime together. It was nothing to be taken for granted, but a moment to be remembered for the rest of my life.”
For two weeks of bliss, Northover endured years of deprivation. The life of most Olympic-caliber athletes is not the jet-setting one of snowboarder Shaun White or the celebrity endorsement machine that is swimmer Michael Phelps. No, it is of daily struggles to hold down a job and pay bills while finding the time to train. To compete you need to constantly fundraise.
So the midpoint between her last Summer Games and the 2012 London Olympics finds Northover, 26, still fighting to remain in the sport. A 2007 graduate of Northeastern University, Northover could be living comfortably and close to friends and family. She’s had offers to coach.
She gave up a job at the University and ventured far from her comfort zone to train with renown field events coach Mohamad Saatara, the throws coach at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz. That’s where she is now, training hard to remain relevant in an unforgiving sport.
When she moved to Flagstaff in September 2009, the job in the school athletic department fell through. Northover was forced to sleep on a friend’s couch and live out of her Ford Focus. She applied for public assistance. This was as far from Olympic dreams as you can get.
“I hit a rock bottom,’’ Northover said. “ I was getting offers from schools to come and coach and offers to work full-time at different places. But I knew that those offers wouldn’t enable me to train the way I need to in order to truly compete on the next level.”
Then she reaggravated her back injury, halting her training. Northover landed a job in December and has been working as a community organizer for A league of Neighborhoods. President Obama worked a similar job out of college. Now her back is better and she is training once more. Things are looking up.
She is on pace to compete at the Jamaican National Championships from June 26-28 in Kingston, Jamaica. And then she hopes to join a mission to Europe in conjunction with Christian-based Athletes in Action.
“Though situations may be tough, even though you may have paralyzing doubt, if you believe in yourself and you keep moving in faith, then anything you set your heart and mind to will come to pass,’’ Northover said. “I hope from this mission I will be able to continue to inspire those whom I come in contact with while also learning a great deal from others and myself. Every day I strive to make a difference in the world. Even if it’s just by helping one person, then it’s an accomplishment for the day.”
“Moving in faith” is Northover’s credo. And when you learn how she came to pick up the shot in the first place, you appreciate her spiritual message all the more. She only joined the track team in high school to lessen the load. Basketball was too much of a commitment for Sewanhaka’s junior class president. So she changed sports, threw the shot on a lark and suddenly found her path.
Help Zara Northover take her inspirational story overseas. She is looking for help financing her mission. Go online at www.give.ccci.org and enter Northover’s tracking number CCC#: 5534030 into the “Give a Gift” box. Or send a check. Make checks payable to “Athletes In Action” and do not write Northover’s name in the memo line of the check per IRS guidelines. Send it to:
901 S O’Leary Street
Flagstaff, AZ 86001