Since her days in fifth grade, Freehold Township High School cross country runner Emma Zawatski had dreamed of competing alongside the top high school runners in the United States at a national championship meet.
That dream became a reality for Zawatski on Dec. 10 when she competed as one of the 40 best runners in the country at the Champs Sports Cross Country Championships at Balboa Park in San Diego, Calif.
Tears of joy ran down Zawatski’s cheeks as she lived out her childhood dream to the cheers of her parents, Alison and Geoff, and her Olympic idols Emma Coburn, Cory McGee and Dani Jones, who were in the stands at Balboa Park.
Zawatski, a junior at Freehold Township, completed the 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) course in 18:11 to finish 23rd out of the 40 runners who participated in the race.
“It was a dream come true,” Zawatski said in an interview following the race. “This is something many people don’t get a chance to experience. I am very honored to experience this. It’s the coolest thing I have ever experienced. It was the best day ever.”
Zawatski said her goal in California was to place among the top 30 runners and not only did she achieve her goal, she “crushed” it by running her second fastest time of the 2022 season.
“This has been my No. 1 goal since fifth grade. Achieving that and having a great race is the best experience I have ever had,” she said.
Zawatski’s impressive performance at the national meet in San Diego capped an historic cross country season and year.
In June, Zawatski won the 1,600-meter race at the Meet of Champions to conclude the spring track and field season.
On Oct. 20, Zawatski ran a time of 17:09.67 to win the Shore Conference championship at Ocean County Park in Lakewood.
From there she went on to win the gold medal at the Central Jersey Group IV state sectional meet, the Group IV state championship meet and the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.
The Meet of Champions brings together the top athletes from around New Jersey from high schools of all sizes to compete against each other. The sectional and group meets that precede the Meet of Champions separate athletes by region and the size of schools.
Zawatski is the first boy or girl cross country runner from Freehold Township High School to win a gold medal at the Meet Champions.
After winning the cross country Meet of Champions, Zawatski competed at the Champs Sports Northeast Regional race at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, N.Y., on Nov. 26. She placed 10th and became the first Freehold Township cross country runner to qualify for the national meet.
Stamping herself into the Freehold Township record book led Zawatski to living out her dream and experiencing an opportunity she hopes she can duplicate in 2023.
The 2022 cross country campaign was an historic season for Zawatski and better yet, it ended with her childhood dream of competing at a national meet coming true.
“This was a super cool experience. It feels amazing. Doing well (at nationals) was a great way to end the season,” she said.