Telling a young person’s story, especially an athlete, is oftentimes like a race. You start at the beginning, go over some of the hurdles they’ve had to clear, then turn the corner to some of the accomplishments before heading to the finish line and wrapping it up with some goals, dreams and where the next steps will take them.
But Zofia Dudek is a different kind of story. Even though she is a runner, it’s best to start at the finish line with the Pioneer junior – since, for one, that’s the last time we saw her, crossing the finish line first overall at Saturday’s D-1 Regional at Lake Erie. But also because one of her answers to a question just jumps off the page.
So, without further ado, meet Zofia Dudek.
“My life has been so unpredictable lately that I don’t even know where I’ll find myself next year,” she says when asked about her immediate future. “I’d be delighted to stay in Ann Arbor but that will depend on whether my dad is offered a position at U of M for another year. For now the possibility of going back to Poland seems equally likely. I hope to continue my education in the US after finishing high school, but I can’t be sure of that quite yet. Wherever life takes me, I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing now – striving to become a great student, athlete and, most importantly, a good person.”
Great student. Check. Great athlete. Check. Good person. Check. And wise beyond her 16 years. Check.
Now, let’s backtrack to the starting line.
Dudek, the daughter of Maciej Dudek and Malgorzata Dudek, was born in Warsaw, Poland where she lived for the first eight years of her life and raised in what she calls a “very ordinary, catholic family.”
“My elementary school looked a little different than in the US,” she says. “It wasn’t as advanced technologically (for example, we didn’t have a computerized gradebook), we didn’t have school busses, there was a lot of homework (even in first grade), and we were taught some different subjects (such as religious studies).”
Her after-school activities weren’t much different than what kids do right here in Ann Arbor.
“I particularly enjoyed rollerblading with my neighborhood friends, but I also had many extra-curricular activities such as art class, piano (which I still play) and ballet,” she says. “My family often visited both of my grandparents, who lived in smaller cities, but also owned farmhouses, where I played around with my cousins. For me this was the only reality and I didn’t think life could be much different.”
Life would become very different. She says what really changed her perception of the world was her first trip to the US.
In 2011, an 8-year-old Zofia and her family moved to the United States. She says she had “very mixed feelings.”
“I didn’t know much English, so I was incredibly nervous about simple things like communicating with my peers or understanding what was going on at school,” she said. “As it turned out, I was able to assimilate very quickly and picked up the language in a matter of months.”
Throughout her childhood, Dudek lived in three different states: Florida, Indiana and now Michigan. But in between those years her family always went back to the same house in Warsaw.
Her father teaches economics and got a job at U-M so the family headed to Ann Arbor. Since she had already experienced Florida and Indiana, Dudek felt comfortable moving to Michigan.
“I was mostly just excited to find out what Ann Arbor was like,” she said. “Over the year, I grew so attached to Pioneer that leaving was one of the saddest moments of my life. The possibility of coming back was as big of a surprise to me as to my coaches and friends and for the first couple of days I could not believe I would be able to walk through the doors of PHS again. I’m incredibly thrilled to be back.”
While she was back at Pioneer, she wasn’t necessarily back on the cross country team. At the end of the 2018 track season she was battling awful shin splints, even though she somehow managed to complete the season and run her best mile time at the State Championships.
She then took some time off and let the shins heal but soon after began feeling soreness in her ankle. “At first it wasn’t very serious so I kept on practicing as I was preparing for Polish Nationals,” she said. “After that event I took about a week off again, but the pain wasn’t going away.”
An x-ray and MRI revealed a stress fracture.
“This put me out of running for a whole month,” she said. “I was surprised at how tough it was for me to stop practicing. It felt extremely odd because I suddenly had more free time after school. I still tried to keep up my fitness by biking and swimming almost every day.”
The extra work paid off – for Dudek and the Pioneers. In her first race back, she finished third at the Ypsi RunCo River Rat Open. She took first at the SEC Championship on Oct. 18 and last Saturday won the Lake Erie Regional with a time of 18:26.9. Her teammate, Sarah Forsyth was second in 18:40.5.
“I still have to be careful with my running so my injury does not reappear and I’m taking preventive measures such as running on soft surfaces more often,” she says. “I’m incredibly grateful for my team for supporting me during this time by practicing on grass. This way I can be sure to be ready for the state meet.”
The Pioneers look locked and loaded for the state meet after running away with the Regional title by taking five of the top 10 spots. They are among the favorites at Saturday’s D-1 state final at MIS.
“The team goal for the state meet is to have each girl run her best,” Dudek says. “Although I am aware of how tough the competition gets, I think that Pioneer has all it takes to win. Our task is to give it our best and that’s what I’m out to do on Saturday. We are ready to make this the No. 1 performance of the season, and if that’s not enough to win, we will surely put up a great fight.”
Dudek, who also runs track and is a member of the Pioneer choir, German club and Science Olympiad team, says her high school is very different than schools in Poland.
“I like the fact that all the sports teams and clubs are based in school,” she says. “This way I don’t have to spend so much time on transportation, unlike in Warsaw, where my commute from home to school and school to practice took out about three hours of my day. But probably the most incredible thing is the team spirit that we have in all our sports programs and clubs at Pioneer. I’ve never seen something quite like it.”
For now, that’s Dudek’s story. But it might need a different ending after Saturday when Dudek and her teammates possibly end the season as state champions. It would be just another checkmark in her incredible story.