Tuesday, June 11, 2013
A mother, a scholar and a champion
By Denise Maloof Special to espnW
Christy Cazzola, who won seven Division III titles in 2012-13, took an unusual path to track stardom.
Christy Cazzola lives her life in splits, between motherhood, scholarship and competition.
Fresh off a record-breaking NCAA Division III track and field season, she now is pursuing another obligation: the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships later this month. A to-do list suits her style.
"I know I have a lot going on right now and this is really hard to get through, but you just kind of get through it and keep going," Cazzola said. "And you just keep going and don't give up."
It's mostly happy excess. The 27-year-old junior from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh balances her roles with the aid of fiancé Shuma Kuwamoto, extended family support and the Titans' coaching staff. In the closing kick of a secondary education degree, Cazzola tends a promising athletic career along with 6-year-old son Noah and 3-year-old daughter Kaya.
Without risking eyeball glaze, know that Mom won seven NCAA Division III track titles in 2012-13 -- last fall's cross country championship, three events in the March indoor championships and three more in the May outdoor championships. A distance specialist at 800, 1,500 and 5,000 meters, Cazzola won the three outdoor events in the span of three hours, the first Division III woman to do so at the same meet.
She also swept national track athlete of the year awards for cross country, indoor and outdoor seasons, plus national student-athlete of the year honors for cross country.
"She's done a few things that no one had done this year," Wisconsin-Oshkosh co-head coach Drew Ludtke said.
Now, she's trying more. At the Nashville-based Music City Distance Carnival on June 1, Cazzola tied for first in the 800 with a time of 2 minutes, 4.51 seconds. That's faster than the current Division III record of 2:05.5 set in 2004 by former Wisconsin-Oshkosh standout Liz Woodworth. It qualified Cazzola for the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships on June 20-23 in Des Moines, Iowa.
"To even go, I think will be an amazing experience," she said of the USA meet.
Figuring out a way to find the time may be more amazing. Cazzola doesn't train conventionally because Noah and Kaya are her priorities, yet she says the payoff to all her compartmentalization already is realized.
"I just gave it a shot," Cazzola said of entering college with a then-18-month-old son in 2008. "I wasn't really sure if I was going to be able to run because I didn't want to be too overwhelmed with school and with having a family. I just kind of wanted to do it just for fun and see where it could go."
Cazzola often completes multiple workouts while on the Oshkosh campus a half hour south of her Appleton, Wis., home. That's because she must fetch Noah and Kaya from day care later in the day. But she doesn't fear choices. A Kaukauna, Wis., native, she took a job rather than a Division I track scholarship after her 2003 high school graduation.
"That was not a popular decision with my family," she said. "But I wasn't ready, and I wanted to figure out what I wanted to be and what I was all about. I really had no idea where I wanted to go with my life or my future, and there were other things that were more important to me. I wanted more than just going to college. It was what everybody else wanted, but I wasn't sure what I wanted."
She met Kuwamoto, a chef at Appleton's Katsu-Ya of Japan restaurant, during this time. Noah arrived in 2006. Two years later, she enrolled at Wisconsin-Oshkosh and ran her first cross country season. Kaya arrived in 2009, prompting a competitive hiatus. Once back in shape, Cazzola resumed cross country in fall 2010 and ran her first collegiate track season in winter 2011.
Two years of gradual improvement accelerated this season, leaving behind a tough 2012 that included familial issues, a coaching change and training-room stints.
"She's only had about two and a half years to train and probably only really maybe one or one and a half years of pretty good training," Ludtke said, citing the recent melding of talent with development. "So we still think Christy can keep getting better, the next several years, at least."
Team Cazzola includes parents Amy and Dave Fritz of Kaukauna, Bill and Tina Cazzola of Little Chute (Amy and Bill divorced and remarried and Christy says she now has four parents), brother Nick Cazzola and stepbrothers Justin and Zach Higgins, all of whom lend tangible and moral support. When their daughter and sister require a mental boost, Kuwamoto -- alternately superb with Japanese cuisine or pasta, per his fiancee -- plays cheerleader.
"When I get to the point where I'm like, 'This is so tough, and I just don't know if it's worth it, I don't know if I want to do it anymore,' he says, 'This is your shot. You gotta go for it,'" Cazzola said. "He's really supportive and wants me to give myself the chance. He doesn't want me to have any regrets. He knows this is really important, and he's really been a great, great support in my life."
Meanwhile, her Wisconsin-Oshkosh teammates, though they might not know, are helping Cazzola prepare for her career as a middle or high school social studies teacher.
"Every once in a while there's an age gap we have to kind of make up," she said. "I'm like, 'What's twerking? What is that?' But they have been really good about filling me in and bridging the gap. And I've learned so much from them."
"I think she has something to prove being that she's not traditional," Ludtke said. "She wants to go back and say, 'Hey, I was still able to be successful even though I didn't do it the traditional way.' I think that's very important for her."
It was Ludtke who masterminded Noah and Kaya's podium appearances during award ceremonies at the Division III outdoor championships in May at La Crosse, Wis.
Little celebrities when present -- "Everyone wants to be the baby-sitter," Ludtke said -- he boosted up Kaya to hand off her mother's 5,000-meter first-place award. The family had watched Cazzola compete at a national meet for the first time that day.
"It's just all been a huge learning experience," she said. "Everything that I've gone through in college since 2008, I don't think you can even put a value on it."