July 1, 2003
By Bob Rose
It must be special when you can call your best friend an Olympic Gold Medallist. And it must be extra special when that best friend is also your grandmother.
Cal's precocious freshman long-jumper, Elzunia Lamb, may be the only person on earth who can make that claim.
"My grandma is an amazing lady," Lamb said about her 69-year-old grandmother, Ella Krzesinska, a three-time Olympian from Poland. "This family is awesome to be part of. It's a lot to live up to, but it's fun."
The 2001 California state long jump champion, Lamb grew up in a family of track stars. Her grandmother was Poland's premier long-jumper at the 1952, '56 and '60 Olympic Games. Her grandfather, Andrzej Krzesinska, also competed in track and later became one of the world's most respected coaches of the sport. And her mother, Ela Lamb, was the European junior record holder in the high jump at age 17 before injuries deprived her of an appearance in the Olympics.
"I have photos of me long-jumping at two or three years old," Elzunia recalls. "Track is something that all of us did. We would always be out at the track and were always exposed to the sport."
Born Elzbieta Bogoslawa Lamb on Jan. 29, 1983 in Warsaw, Elzunia and her brother, A.J., moved to the United States with their mother when Elzunia was 18 months old.
Her grandparents were already living in Eugene, Ore., as Mr. Krzesinska had accepted a job with the athletic shoe and apparel company, Athletics West, in the late 1970s. A former pole-vaulter, Krzesinska coached some of the top Oregon-based athletes of that time period, including former NCAA 400 hurdles champion and world championships decathlete Dan Steele. He and Elzunia's grandmother lived in the Eugene hills in a home that overlooked the University of Oregon's famed track stadium.
Lamb stayed with her grandparents for much of her early childhood, as a close bond began forming between her and her famous grandmother. Little Elzunia would join her brother in various all-comers track meets held in Eugene. She met many track and field luminaries at these meets, including one of the world's elite decathletes - Chris Huffins. She was duly impressed. However, little did she know that Huffins would be the head coach of her Cal track team several years later.
Yet, no one has left a more indelible impression on Elzunia than her grandmother. As a first time Olympian at the 1952 Helsinki Games, Ella Krzesinska wore long, braided hair. She led the long jump in the early competition when the Hungarian team filed a complaint. Krzesinska's braid had touched the sand during the landing of her best jump. "They decided the ponytail was part of my body, so they didn't measure from my shoe," said Krzesinska, who ended up in 11th place.
Elzunia's grandmother returned to the Olympics four years later, winning the gold medal with a jump of 20-10 in the 1956 Melbourne Games. She followed that sterling performance by claiming the silver medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Krzesinska continued to compete well beyond her Olympic days. At the age of 54, in fact, she broke world records for her age group in the triple jump, long jump and hurdles at the Masters Championships in 1988.
Yet, what has impressed Elzunia the most about her grandmother is not the Olympic medals or world records. It is her humility.
"My grandmother never really talked about her achievements," she says. "She left that up to my grandfather and my mom. I've met a lot of athletes that are self-absorbed. I admire the kind of athlete who knows they're good but doesn't flaunt it. That's my grandmother."
After spending two years in Bakersfield, a five-year-old Elzunia moved to Hollister with her brother, stepfather and mother. Her mother, who, like her stepfather, is a plant pathologist, assumed a new role in Elzunia's life when she enrolled at San Benito High School - that of her coach.
"It was kind of nice having a parent as a coach, because you got more attention," she confided. "But it was non-stop. Discussions about track always seemed to follow us home at night."
Under her mother's tutelage, Elzunia exploded onto the national prep scene. Her jump of 20-7¼ at Sacramento City College won the California state championship her senior year and she ranked second best in the nation.
But while her mother was a driving force behind her achievements, it was Elzunia's grandmother who provided the words of wisdom.
"Towards the end of high school, I began calling grandma before every meet," she said. "I'd ask her for any words of advice. I still do it for the meets at Cal."
At first, her grandmother attended Elzunia's high school meets. But before long, it became apparent that her presence was counterproductive.
"When I was competing, her voice was the only one I heard in the crowd," said Elzunia. "I wanted to do so well for her. I wanted to be exactly like my grandmother. It was an awful lot to look up to. I got really nervous when she was there. So, now, she just stays home!" Heavily recruited in high school, Lamb chose Cal over several other major colleges vying for her talents.
"I wanted to be close to my family and I wanted a great education," she recalled. "Cal is one of the best academic schools in the nation."
The Golden Bears' assistant track coach Ed Miller, a long-time friend of Elzunia's grandparents, also influenced her decision.
"In my opinion, coach Miller is the best multi-event coach in the country," she said. "He creates a very good training atmosphere. He's also like a parent when you're away from your own parents. If I have a problem, I feel comfortable talking with him. He's an awesome person to have around, not only as a coach, but also as a friend."
Lamb arrived at Cal as a competitor in the heptathlon, long jump and hurdles. Following a redshirt-freshman year that included stress fractures in both shins, she won this spring's Big Meet long jump competition with a leap of 19-8 3/4.
One of her first goals is to beat her grandmother's personal best of 20-10 in the event. She needs to improve by three inches to surpass it.
"I'd like to beat my grandma," she admitted. "She's starting to notice that I'm getting older. The other day when we were walking together, she asked me, 'Are you taller than me?' If I beat her mark, I'm sure she'd be happy."
Fluent in both English and Polish, and holding citizenship in both countries, Lamb also has her eyes -and heart - set on competing in a future Olympics.
"I've been wanting to go to the Olympics since I was a little girl," said Lamb, who plans to pursue a career in international sports marketing. "I know I've got a lot of work to do, but I just need to take it one step at a time. I really look up to my grandmother and I know her seeing me compete in the Olympics would really make her proud. I think it would make my mom feel good, too, knowing that she had a part in me being who I am."
Yet, the pressure of living up to such track legends could become unbearable, couldn't it? "Not really," Lamb said. "My grandma always says to me, 'No matter what you do, I will always love you.' I consider my grandmother to be my best friend."
Last summer, Lamb visited her homeland and worked out with Poland's former Olympic long jump coach Andrzej Lasocki, a man her grandfather used to coach. She was planning to compete in an all-comers meet there but instead underwent an emergency appendectomy. She celebrated America's Independence Day from a hospital bed in Poland.
While hospitalized, Lamb had time to reflect on her Olympic dream.
"If I ever go to the Olympics, I would want to go for Poland," she recently revealed. "Just like my grandmother did."
If that day does arrive, her grandmother will most likely be watching on television in Poland. Ella and Andrzej Krzesinska sold their home in Oregon two months ago and have moved back to the small village where they once lived in Mlociny, Poland.