By PATRICK SLACK
When Preston Zimny was in sixth grade, his parents called Jeff Massmann asking for a favor.
It turned out, their simple request would be one of the best gifts ever given to Massmann.
“I knew his parents and they mentioned that they wanted to get him involved in something,” Massmann said.
So Massmann, the head coach of the Little Falls boys cross country and track and field teams, called Zimny and asked him to give running a try.
“I was sitting at home playing Legos when I got a call from Coach Massmann,” Zimny said. “My parents pushed me out the door and I thought, ‘What the heck? I don’t do anything else.’”
Zimny spent a couple of years getting accustomed to the challenge and rigors of distance running.
It didn’t take long, though, before he and Massmann discovered that they had uncovered a wealth of potential.
“At the start it was mainly get out and run and have fun,” Zimny said. “I found out that I have a gift and now it’s part of my life.”
Instead of simply trying to finish races, Zimny began picking up speed to add to his endurance to start to compete with the other top runners.
“Once Preston got a look at the front of the pack and how much fun it can be to be up there, that made him want to try all the harder,” Massmann said. “You kind of get addicted to the habit of winning and the habit of running.”
“It’s still fun,” Zimny said. “But it’s more competitive fun.”
As a sophomore, Zimny, who also competes in Nordic ski racing during the winter in between cross country and track, began competing not only for the top spot in smaller competitions, but in larger events as well, qualifying for the state Nordic meet.
A year later, he once again advanced past the section meet in Nordic ski racing, while also moving on to state for the first time in cross country.
This year, Zimny repeated the feat in cross country and Nordic in the fall and winter seasons.
With five career state appearances already locked up, Zimny still headed into the spring hungry for one final and elusive trip to state in track and field to cap his high school career.
Little Falls entered the season with lofty team goals as well, with Zimny and a handful of other experienced leaders guiding a roster filled with talent.
“This was probably the most balanced team I’ve ever coached,” Massmann said. “It was pretty strong in every event.”
“Going into the season we had three goals: win the conference indoor, outdoor and qualify for the state true team meet,” he said. “The kids dug in and went after it.”
The Flyers were able to check the first goal off their list in the opening meet of the year, cruising past their new Granite Ridge foes in the inaugural conference indoor meet, March 31.
Little Falls continued its success throughout April before trying to knock off its second goal at the Section 8AA true team meet at Detroit Lakes, May 7.
The true team competition, unlike the individual section and state meets, is designed to measure the overall strength of each team, awarding points to all participants in every event based on place.
Instead of specializing in one event, teams typically need their elite athletes to amass big numbers in multiple events.
Zimny got off to a good start in achieving that in his first event of the day, earning 16 early points for the Flyers in the 1,600-meter run with a third-place finish in 4:37.96.
With the team race still too close to call with Detroit Lakes, Little Falls turned to Zimny in the 3,200, the next-to-last race, to try to wrap up the team championship.
Zimny came through, delivering 18 more points by outdistancing the field and taking first in 10:02.65.
“In the true team, you just want to do well to get points for the team instead of going for time,” Zimny said. “It’s more sit back and rack up the points.”
With the help of Zimny’s 34-point effort, Little Falls was able to edge Detroit Lakes by nine, 456-447, and qualify for the state true team meet.
Placed in the schedule in between the section and state true team meets, Little Falls hosted the outdoor Granite Ridge Conference (GRC) Championships, May 15.
With an even more overwhelming margin than at the indoor meet, Little Falls dominated runner-up Foley, 210.5-114, to claim the first-ever GRC title.
“It was pretty exciting to win the first (GRC) title my senior year,” Zimny said. “We worked hard and the margin was a result of that.”
For his part, Zimny matched strides in the 1,600 with Foley junior Charlie Lawrence, who would go on to win the Class A state championship in the 3,200 later in the spring.
After finishing a second back in 4:33.44, Zimny added another runner-up and All-GRC performance in the 800 in 2:05.99. At the state true team meet in Stillwater, May 19, Zimny once again took third in the 1,600 (4:30.59) and first in the 3,200 (9:47.43), leading Little Falls to eighth place.
With all of the team’s goals already accomplished, Zimny then set out to achieve one last individual milestone at the Section 8AA meet in Detroit Lakes, May 30.
It wouldn’t be easy, as Zimny was part of a potent field of runners in the 3,200 that included Moorhead senior Glen Ellingson, the defending state champion at the distance, with only the top two runners guaranteed to move on.
“I liked his chances,” Massmann said. “We went in with two goals, to qualify and break the school record. We knew if he was on that pace he had a good chance of qualifying.”
Ellingson seized control of first, leaving a group of four runners bunched tightly together fighting for the final spot.
Zimny, however, stuck to his pace and kept his thoughts simple.
“I could either be done or wear the purple uniform one more time,” Zimny said. “It was basically do or die.”
“I knew it was going to be close so I wasn’t going to risk it by making a big gap early,” he said. “I waited until there was about 150 meters left and just trusted my kick.”
With a razor-thin margin of exactly one second separating him and his nearest challenger, Zimny crossed the line second in 9:39.43, breaking the school record and qualifying for one more state meet.
“It was probably the sweetest of all of them,” Zimny said. “It was unreal. I was on cloud nine.”
“One of the greatest strengths he’s shown through his career is that he’s got a lot of guts,” Massmann said. “Out of the three (distance sports), it’s probably the toughest.”
“Only two can go on and with the defending state champ you know that probably takes away a spot,” he said. “It was a great way to end his career.”
At the state meet at Hamline University in St. Paul, June 8, Zimny made one final mark on the Flyers’ distance sports record books, resetting his own 3,200 record with a time of 9:36.27, good for 11th place.
“Preston ranks right up near the top,” Massmann said. “To be that dedicated nearly year-round with all of the activities kids can be involved in is an extraordinary thing.”
“It’s been a thrill to watch him progress and as he has developed, so have other distance runners,” he said.
“It goes to show that if I can do it, anyone can do it,” Zimny said. “Great distance runners weren’t born, they were made. If anyone puts in the hard work and has the determination, it’s achievable.”
MC Record’s Athlete of the Year
True Team section meet
1,600 meter: third, 4:37.96.
3,200 meter: first, 10:02.65.
True Team Class AA state championship
1,600 meter: third, 4:30.59.
3,200 meter: first, 9:47.43.
Granite Ridge Conference Championship
800 meter: second, 2:05.99.
1,600 meter: second, 4:33.44.
Section 8AA meet
1,600 meter: third, 4:28.33.
3,200 meter: second, 9:39.43.
Class AA state championship
3,200 meter: 11th, 9:36.27.