LINCOLN — The first time a Nebraska track and field coach saw Reka Czuth jump, it was, as far as Czuth was concerned, perhaps the last time she would compete in a meet.
Luckily for the Huskers, the sophomore from Hungary decided to give college competition a shot and now stands as one of the nation’s finest leapers.
Czuth, named the Big Ten’s field athlete of the week on Wednesday, heads into this weekend as the conference’s leader in the high jump after setting a personal record with 6-feet, 1½ inches at last weekend’s Frank Sevigne Husker Invitational. The leap tied Czuth for the second-best mark in the NCAA this season and put her at No. 4 on Nebraska’s all-time indoor list.
“I did not see that coming,” Czuth said this week.
Her biggest successes often seem to come as a surprise to Czuth, who was prepared to hang up her spikes after completing her high school career in Hungary.
“I had really bad coaches, and I lost my confidence,” she said. “It was really frustrating because I was trying really hard to jump high, and it didn’t happen.”
Fate intervened at an invitational meet in Budapest, where Czuth put together one of the best high jumps of her young career. In attendance that day was Dusty Jonas, NU’s former national champion high jumper who now coaches jumpers for his alma mater. Jonas was competing himself, but after watching Czuth in action, he found time to go over and inquire if the high school senior was interested in continuing her jumping career in the U.S.
“She had all the qualities that I was really looking for, not just in a high jumper, but in a long jumper or triple jumper,” Jonas said. “She’s fast, she’s strong, she’s very competitive. She jumped maybe 5-10¾ that day, so she could jump plenty high.”
Czuth visited Nebraska and was wowed by the indoor facility at the Devaney Center, ultimately deciding to give college track a try. But the ups and downs of a freshman year on the track, combined with the demands of college life so far from home, again put her in a difficult mental place.
She lost confidence, gained weight and hurt her ankle while competing in the long jump during last indoor season. She again felt the old doubts enter her mind. Getting out of that funk, Czuth said, was an equal dose of Jonas’ encouragement and tough love.
“Dusty helped me so much,” Czuth said. “He was always there for me on and off the track. We talked a lot each and every day. He helped me get through everything.”
Jonas, a Texas native, said he could relate to being a college freshman a long way from home who struggled to find consistent success early. Wallowing in self doubt was no place to find the peak of an athlete’s potential, so if Czuth struggled in workouts, Jonas would remind his pupil of the girl he saw that day in Hungary and demand to see her again.
“I was like ‘Here’s what I need you to do. This is what we brought you here for. I know it’s in there because I’ve seen it, so dig it out,’ ” Jonas said.
Czuth’s upswing began last May when she was the surprise winner of the long jump at the Big Ten outdoor championships, setting a personal record of 20-8. Czuth said she has spent less time practicing the event this season in order to focus on the high jump, but she still ranks in the top 10 this year among Big Ten long jumpers.
Her best chance for a conference championship this year likely is in the high jump, where Czuth is eyeing the indoor school record of 6-2¾ set by Epley Bullock in 2010. Her next chance to improve on her PR will come this weekend when Czuth will jump at the Pittsburg State Gorilla Classic in Pittsburg, Kansas. Nebraska will split its team this weekend between Pittsburg and Fayetteville, Arkansas, for the Tyson Invitational.
Czuth’s Big Ten-leading high jump puts her about three centimeters shy of Bullock’s school record, which can seem like a wide gulf in the incremental world of the high jump. But Jonas, who holds the Husker men’s school record in the event, isn’t about to cast doubt on whether Czuth has the potential to put her name at the top of the all-time chart.
“This year, she’s done a really nice job of clearing a bar and wanting the next one and the next one,” he said. “Athletes like that are few and far between. When you get an athlete like that that has the kind of talent in her, she can do really, really well. Who knows how well?”
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