When Eleena Zhelezov began competing in track and field at age 11 in her hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia, there was no triple jump for girls or women.
The vision of her coach there and a family's journey to the U.S. paved the way for Zhelezov to become one of only two student-athletes in NCAA track and field history, male or female in all divisions, to sweep a single event both indoors and outdoors four years in a row. Attending Brandeis University, Zhelezov captured eight triple jump titles from 1992 to 1995.
"I don't know if my coach in Russia had his pulse on the track and field world, but he taught me how to triple jump even though it wasn't an event I could compete in there," Zhelezov recalled. "He also taught one of my teammates the pole vault, which was also not a women's event in the country at the time."
Zhelezov's parents are Russian Jews who had been trying to flee the country for 10 years. "The gates opened up one last time and a lot of people, including my family, left," Zhelezov said. They only had family members in Israel and had to choose between going there or the U.S. "The opportunities seemed bettter for us in the U.S. and my father had friends who lived in Massachusetts," she remembered. "Boston was also more similar to St. Petersburg so we moved there."
The family moved in February 1989 and Zhelezov began school midway through her sophomore year. "I was very fortunate to be able to go to high school in the U.S. for 2 1/2 years to learn the language," she said. "If I had gradauted high school in Russia, I would have had to go straight to college and that would have been much more difficult for me not knowing the language."
It was a difficult transition at first to be attending a school where she didn't speak the language, but Zhelezov remembered track as a way to have something in common with other students. Eventually, the full immersion into the English language paid dividends. "It was a great experience when something clicked," she stated. "All of a sudden I understood what people were saying. It was like I had been collecting data in my brain for a year and now it made sense."
She wanted to stay close to her new home for college and Brandeis was a perfect fit. One of the Judges' coaches was Mark Reytblat, who was also born in Russia. "It was in the stars for me to go to Brandeis," Zhelezov said. "I wasn't ready for another major move in my life. Everything just fell into place."
Indeed things did fall into place at Brandeis for Zhelezov. She became a 15-time All-American, 14-time UAA individual champion, and 13-time New England Division III individual champion. Zhelezov was inducted into the Brandeis Hall of Fame in 2001, the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Hall of Fame in 2011, and the Masachusetts State Track Coaches Association (MSTCA) Hall of Fame in 2012. She won nine NCAA titles, capturing the indoor long jump in her first year, and was named the NCAA Division III Athlete of the Year in her senior season.
With all the honors and accolades, Zhelezov most fondly remembers traveling as a team. "My favorite part was going on the trips, particularly to UAA schools," Zhelezov said. "It was so much fun bonding with the team. At the same time, I think we took the friends and travel for granted. I definitely miss being able to travel for free and be with so many friends."
One of her favorite memories is attending the 1995 NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships in Minnesota. "It was so cold, so I remember we went to the Mall of America," Zhelezov recalled. "I was thinking how huge this place is. All of a sudden, we just decided to get our ears pierced as if I needed more holes in my ears."
Zhelezov is now working as an architect intern at a small firm in Cambridge, MA. It seems like another strong fit for her as her father is an architect/artist and her boyfriend is also an architect. "It wasn't something I was ever pushed into," she said. "I tried a couple of other things post-Brandeis, but I realized architecture is what I should be doing."
Zhelezov thoroughly enjoyed her time at Brandeis though admits that given the chance to do it again, she would major in Art History rather than European History. "I wish someone had advised me to take hard courses in something I really liked. Art and going to museums was something that has always been a part of my life. My father would take us to museums all over and take his time reading every display. That is just what we did as a family."
She remembers her track and field days fondly, mostly the friends she made along the way. "Facebook has been a great way to connect with my former teammates. Brandeis also hosts a meet each winter and invites back all the alumni. We have a connection because we spent so many hours together. Looking back, I think it would also have been great to make more friends outside of athletics as well."