Illini of the Week March 4: DJ Zahn

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By Will Small

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down each week and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Senior DJ Zahn put his stamp on Illinois men’s track and field history in emphatic fashion at last weekend’s Big Ten Indoor Championships.

Zahn’s motivation for the meet began building exactly one year prior. At the 2014 Big Ten Indoor meet, Zahn finished in the top-10 in three different races: the 200 meters, 400 meters and the 4X400 meter relay. He didn’t come away with a first-place finish — his best finish was second place in the 400 meters.

Zahn knew he wanted to improve on his results this time around, and he did exactly that, dominating the field at the meet in Geneva, Ohio. He once again competed in the 200 meters, 400 meters and the 4X400 meter relay, but this year, Zahn finished the weekend with three gold medals, winning every event he participated in.

“I wanted to see myself progress,” Zahn said. “Getting second last year definitely made me want to get first this year. I wanted to see if I got better and it motivated me.”

In the 200, Zahn finished with a time of 20.75 seconds, breaking the Illinois school record he set in a preliminary race the day before.

The 400 was another record-breaking performance for the Morton, Ill., native — Zahn ran an Illinois record time of 45.63. The 400 was the first race of the day, which he said gave him momentum and confidence heading into his other events.

For Zahn’s final event of the meet, he teamed up with sophomores David Kendziera and Kenneth Allen and junior Joe McAsey in the 4X400 meter relay. The quartet barely missed setting another school record, but Zahn’s final leg of the event was the fastest in Illini history.

It was a record-breaking day for Zahn, who was confident he’d eventually break those school records, but didn’t think he’d do it Saturday.

“I wasn’t expecting to break these records right away,” he said. “But it was on my mind, I thought it would be a really cool accomplishment. I was always more focused on running and winning my races.”

Zahn’s performance this past weekend was not a result that shocked a lot of people. Before the Big Ten meet, Zahn held the No. 1 time in the 400 in the conference and the second-fastest time in the 200, making him one of the fastest and most consistent runners in the Big Ten. Tuesday Zahn was named the Big Ten Indoor Track Athlete of the Year.

Head coach Mike Turk was one of the people Zahn impressed the most. But for Turk, the results were not that surprising; he knew Zahn was due for a big performance.

“He hasn’t been beaten this year in the 200 or 400 meters; we just haven’t had him in a really fast race yet,” Turk said. “I knew he was ready to do something big and he’s just gone to a another level.”

In Zahn’s final season as an Illini, his results on the track aren’t the only thing that is important to him. He wants to be a role model for his team, just as past teammates have been for him.

“I want to make sure to set a good example of working hard and having fun,” Zahn said. “I just want to show them what it is to be a good student-athlete.”

With current top-10 national times in both the 200 and 400, Zahn is in good position to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships.

For now, Zahn is satisfied with his success this season, but knowing that he has the support of his team, Zahn wants to see how much more he can accomplish.

“This is my senior year and it’s kind of like, ‘Why not?’ There’s nothing holding me back,” Zahn said. “I might as well see how far I can go.”

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