Marea Zlatunich: Running on her own terms

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It’s an undisputed fact that the ocean in Santa Cruz is exceptionally beautiful and a great place to explore nature.

Cal track and field star Marea Zlatunich grew up right next door to the Pacific Ocean in Aptos, California, a small town just outside of Santa Cruz. She spent her adolescence developing a love of the outdoors and a passion for surfing. 

Zlatunich has always been drawn to the possibility the ocean brings. Her love of it was one of the reasons she decided to major in integrative biology, and she wants to apply her education to a future career working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Besides marine biology, one of her dreams is to work as a rescue swimmer for Cal Fire. To the average person, being a rescue swimmer working in rocky, dangerous waters would not be ideal. To Zlatunich, the idea of staying active while helping others sounds like the perfect job.

Zlatunich is an inspired runner, but more than that, she is well-rounded in the way that all Cal students try to be but can’t always achieve. She has many interests and passions, and has worked her whole life trying to balance them all. 

One of life’s greatest ironies is that the more interests you have, the less time you have to spend on them. Having more than one passion means they can get in the way of each other, and Zlatunich learned this lesson the hard way.

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Growing up by the beach, one of Zlatunich’s favorite things to do was go on surfing trips with her friends. Her love of surfing drew her to the ocean days before she was set to compete at the state track meet her senior year of high school. It was a nice day with good weather, not the kind of day you would ever expect to be dangerous. Zlatunich certainly didn’t.

The waves were small, and as an experienced surfer, Zlatunich thought she knew what she was getting into. 

In a stroke of bad luck, Zlatunich tore her MCL in a surfing accident that day, preventing her from competing at her final high school meet.

“It was very disappointing for me because I really wanted to go to state that year. I won my section meet and I was really excited to see what I could do,” she said.

For someone with high expectations for her final race, sitting out with an injury was the worst possible result. For someone as active as Zlatunich, the injury was even more aggravating as she was forced to refrain from the outdoor activities she loved.

Zlatunich wasn’t the only one disappointed by her injury. Because she was committed to run for the Bears the following year, Cal’s assistant distance coach Chas Davis kept a close eye on her high school progress.

“Here I am, thinking ‘Oh boy, what kind of athlete are we getting here that’s willing to risk the state meet and potentially her career over silly surfing the week before,’” Davis said. 

Luckily, Zlatunich was able to fully recover after several weeks of rest and start what would become a very successful running career with the Bears. 

She looks back on this accident not as an impulsive decision, but as something that happens when you’re not obsessively focused on just one goal.

“It was a freak accident. It taught me that I have to be more careful. In college I focus on running, but I think surfing is something that is still important to me and makes me a more well-rounded person,” Zlatunich said.

Davis agrees with her assessment. Although it’s frustrating for him at times, Zlatunich’s passions outside of running are what make her who she is. It gives her balance and a life beyond competitive sports. It is part of what makes her the runner she is today.  

“These things happen. As much grief as I give her about that, it’s who she is and makes a lot more sense now because of how grounded and balanced she is,” Davis said.

But she’s still a Cal student-athlete. Zlatunich now jokes that Cal’s coaches say she’s not allowed to join the surf club at UC Berkeley. Davis disputes this as a rule that’s more implied than explicit, even if he doesn’t hold her surfing accident against her.

“We don’t have an official team policy that says you can’t join surf club. Was it heavily insinuated that that would be a bad idea? Probably. If she wants to blame it on us, I’m perfectly happy accepting the blame,” Davis said.

 

Being a collegiate-level athlete isn’t easy. Dedicating yourself to a competitive sport means hours upon hours of intense weekly practices and committing yourself to a strict and highly scrutinized lifestyle, all while facing enormous amounts of pressure from fans and coaches alike. 

And Zlatunich isn’t just any college athlete, she’s one of Cal’s top female distance runners. She placed top five for the Cal women at every invitational of the 2019 cross country season.

Zlatunich is well aware of the sacrifice competitive running takes, but the pressure for her to perform at every race in which she competes is still overwhelming.

In an already busy college environment, what would convince someone to go to daily practices and sacrifice their weekend year round? What motivates her to put so much time and energy into a sport she doesn’t particularly plan to continue doing after college, when she could instead spend time doing other things she loves?

“It’s an outlet for me. It’s an outlet for a lot of energy I have. It calms me down, it’s stress relief,” Zlatunich said.

Zlatunich has always needed to channel her energy into action, as she’s happiest and most relaxed when she is active and outdoors. But this still doesn’t explain why Zlatunich chose cross country, why she chose running at Cal over other outdoor sports.

As enticing of a school as Cal was based on its academic reputation alone, it took some convincing for Zlatunich to agree to join the team.

“Before my visit, I didn’t think I was going to come. I was taking it just to take it, but I came and I saw the way the team interacted with each other and thought, ‘Wow I want to be a part of that,’” Zlatunich said. 

Zlatunich’s intuition led her to the right place. She now spends most of her free time with her teammates, and many of her closest friends also run for Cal. In the end, that team is the reason she continues to compete in cross country and track.

“I love the team so much, and I love the camaraderie. My team is the reason I’m still running,” Zlatunich said. 

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Looking back on her senior year surfing accident with more perspective, Zlatunich doesn’t see her passion for surfing as a mistake.

What makes Zlatunich such an accomplished runner is a combination of everything she’s able to balance in her life, and her ability to focus on things besides just competitive running. She is and always will be there for her teammates, but she enjoys her life outside the race course. 

Although her accident seemed like a red flag at the time, Davis doesn’t hold a grudge.

“It’s funny now looking back in context, it’s just one of those things that comes with being Marea,” Davis said.

She’s an integrative biology major at a school with some of the most challenging STEM courses in the country. She’s placed top-10 at invitationals where the competition is made up of other Pac-12 schools. She still surfs in her free time — but no longer while she’s in season. 

Zlatunich does it all, but still manages to stay humble. And when asked about the future ahead of her, she has only one request.  

“I just don’t want to be in an office,” she said.

Mia Horne covers cross country. Contact her at [email protected].