Last summer, a recently graduated high school senior won a county cake-decorating competition in Calhan, Colorado. The following school year, this girl, Maddy Jahelka, would start her first semester at UC Berkeley as a Division I student athlete, playing for the Cal women’s lacrosse team.
This is the recipe for how she got there.
Step One: Start with a farm in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Maddy grew up surrounded by horses, sheep and chickens.
When she was young, Maddy and one of her older brothers, Tom, would go horseback riding together. They would gallop through the woods around their home and practice their jumps. Occasionally, they would have horse shows and would spend the night before preparing side-by-side. They would polish their bridles, halters and riding boots and iron their riding clothes until they were crisp and neat.
The Jahelkas also bred and raised sheep through the 4-H Club, a youth development organization. Maddy and the other participants in the sheep-breeding project cared for the animals from birth until they were shown at a competition five to six months later.
“Those animals are beholden to you to take care of them and provide for them,” Joan Jahelka, Maddy’s mother, says. “They can’t walk to the refrigerator and get milk when they feel like it.”
Maddy took care of the animals with her two older brothers until Phil, and then Tom, left for college. Then the duties became hers alone.
“My parents obviously helped, but I had to go buy the feed,” Maddy says. “I had to go get the hay, I had to unload all the hay — which is a huge task — and then I always had to fit all the sheep for the shows that we went to. It was a big responsibility.”
At competitions, sheep are shown by class and examined by judges who rate them on criteria such as fleece, confirmation of skeletal structure and overall breed characteristics.
Maddy went out a national champion. Her ewe, a particularly large sheep named Horse, won Grand Champion Junior Ewe in the national show for the Corriedale breed. She had beautiful fleece — lustrous with a bold crimp — and her nose and feet were stunningly black, an important characteristic of her breed.
Such success came from a very methodical set of decisions by Maddy and her brothers. When they were younger, the siblings decided to be more competitive breeders — expanding beyond their local county shows for national contests that were oftentimes multiple states away. The family began driving much farther to buy sheep than they ever had before, traveling all the way to Montana to purchase livestock from Renetta Phillippi, Maddy’s sheep godmother.
The travel time for competitions grew as well. Trips to Missouri and Kentucky became commonplace, as the siblings bred increasingly high-caliber animals and maintained their lofty standards by culling the sheep that failed to meet them.
Step Two: Ensure that no goal goes unfulfilled.
“If she has a vision, or once she has an idea or a goal, something she wants to do, she’ll pursue it for years,” Joan says. “She is not a short-term goal person, she is a long-term goal, chip-away-at-it-step-by-step person.”
Maddy applies this philosophy to all aspects of her life. Everything she decides to do, aside from the occasional “Gossip Girl” binge-watching marathon, is a stepping stone to future success and to realizing the objectives she has set for herself.
Take French horn, for example. Maddy began playing in sixth grade and willingly practiced every day. Once, she even pulled out her instrument at the bus stop and began to play it to pass the time.
At the beginning of her freshman year of high school, she told her parents that she wanted to be the first chair French horn in band. They supported her but emphasized how difficult doing so would be.
“I said, ‘Maddy, you’re a freshman. You got to pay your dues, you got to move up to that level,’” Joan remembers.
Unfazed, Maddy practiced diligently until she was able to come home that same year and announce to her family that she had won the first chair position.
This tenacity was even more obvious in athletics. Maddy began playing lacrosse in fourth grade in Colorado Springs’ local league. Beginning that first year, she embraced it wholeheartedly. Very quickly, she developed a seemingly limitless adoration for the “fastest sport on two feet.” Within a year of first stepping on the field, she had aspirations to play at the sport’s highest amateur level.
She soon announced to her parents that she would be a Division I lacrosse player.
A few years later, she began her career with a competitive club in Denver, traveling more than 70 miles each way for every practice and game. She lettered three years in high school, playing on the No. 1 team in the state her junior year.
Her brothers also played lacrosse, and in Maddy’s mind, if they did it, there was no reason she could not also. They would play together, throwing and catching, practicing their stick skills in their backyard. Maddy very quickly surpassed them, but when Tom and Phil realized their sister’s superior ability, they were not resentful. Only proud.
Reaching the top levels to which she aspired has come at a cost.
“I had to give up riding horses so that I could do lacrosse and also focus on the sheep,” Maddy says. “And (give up) a lot of time with friends.”
Yet, she stands where she does today with no regrets.
Step Three: Give her a unique hobby for good measure.
Sheep breeding is not the only thing Maddy did as part of the 4-H Club. She also decorated cakes and competed at the county level. Her award-winning cake was a three-tiered masterpiece, standing nearly a foot and a half tall. It was frosted with buttercream and covered all over in white gum-paste flowers, with a few dark blue ones scattered throughout. The top was covered in a bouquet of roses made from the same sugar dough. It took two days to make all the flowers.
“It is really nice to be able to sit down and just listen to music and just crank out a bunch of product,” Maddy says.
Even when Maddy was a novice-cake decorator, she spent whatever time was necessary to construct her cakes exactly as she imagined them. One of her first creations was a three-dimensional, structurally sound cutout cake in the shape of Yoda. Maddy worked tirelessly to perfect the shape, practicing with multiple boxes of cake mix until she decided she could accurately represent the small green Jedi.
Step Four: Make sure that she never stops imagining what she can get out of life and what she wants from her future. Maddy continues to set goals for herself, embodying a lesson often repeated by her grandfather.
“You learn from the past, you don’t live in the past,” Joan recalls. “Life is for the living and you live in the present and the future. You don’t dwell on the past.”
And what is that future for Maddy, now that she has achieved so many of the goals she set for herself?
Her plans, maybe for the first time ever, are full of unknowns. Yet, Maddy can look back with pride at all she has accomplished so far and look forward to her uncertain future with confidence that she has the ability to succeed at whatever she pursues.
She is considering completing pre-med requirements and currently intends to pursue an undergraduate degree in astrophysics. She is fascinated by space and its uncertainty, and she religiously follows NASA, remaining up to date on its projects and published reports.
“(Maddy) had talked for years about going to med school and becoming a surgeon,” Joan says with pride. “And for the last six months or so, she has talked about becoming an astronaut. I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty big dream. OK, go for it.’”
Sarah Goldzweig covers lacrosse. Contact her at [email protected]org