Baker and title maker: Mililani’s OIA champion, Zola O’Donnell

OIA cross country champion Zola O'Donnell spends plenty of time walking with her brother Eamon, father Mike and mother Mercedes. Photo courtesy of Zola O'Donnell.

In a few days, Zola O’Donnell, today’s featured prep athlete in the Star-Advertiser, will be racing on a cross country course.

Her Mililani teammates will be competing individually and as team, just one week after finishing a close second to Kalaheo in the OIA championships. O’Donnell is the newly crowned OIA champion after winning the race at Patsy Mink Central Oahu Regional Park in 20 minutes, 17 seconds.

Her best time of the season is 19:35 on a very hilly course at Pearl City High School. That time matches up well with the state’s top harriers.

On Saturday, she will be striding up and down the hills in Waiaka, on the outskirts of bucolic Waimea town on the Big Island.

The Hawaii Preparatory Academy campus is as green as any across the islands, with paved roads that serve as part of the course. Within view is Mauna Loa, the long dormant, iconic volcano. Overnight temperatures on campus can dip into the 40s overnight during winter.

It is quite the setting for O’Donnell, who is named after great-grandmother Zola Christensen, a first-generation daughter of Danish immigrants who settled in Utah. Like her great-grandma, O’Donnell wasn’t exactly fond of her first name, as Zola’s mother, Mercedes, found out.

“Grandma was a special person in our family. The funny thing is, (daughter) Zola says, ‘Why did you name me Zola?’ My grandma told me she didn’t like her name either,” Mercedes said.

One day, Mercedes O’Donnell finally looked the name up.

“It means clot of earth,” she said.

The miles add up to a special bond for Mililani’s girls cross country team. From left: Mia Moss, Taylor VonAntwerp, Raini Mayo, Ellie Ikemura, Cassie Chong, Zola O’Donnell, Allison Iida. Photo courtesy of Zola O’Donnell.

There have been many miles of earth covered by the feet of Zola O’Donnell. During the COVID-19 pandemic, racing was nonexistent, but running was life.

“I would go and run by myself. I would run four miles, usually in the evening. I think running by myself is when I need to focus and train. Running with other people is funner and better, more relaxing,” she said. “I can train with other people. They push me when I need to be pushed.”

Some days, she timed her four-mile runs.

“I like to do a fast four miles one day and time it, and if it was pretty good, I would do a nice two-, three-mile run the next day. I didn’t run every day. Five days a week, or whatever felt good,” O’Donnell said.

Running wasn’t the only time outdoors.

“I walk with my parents a lot. Usually, we walk about one or two miles. We have my dog, too,” she said. “My whole life is walking.”

The current Zola hasn’t lost a race all season. The junior doesn’t lose in the classroom, either. She had a 4.1 grade-point average coming into the new school year, then posted a 4.6 GPA during the first quarter. She carries four AP classes just for the fun of a challenge.

Mike O’Donnell, Zola’s father, had an inkling that his daughter would be an active person for life.

“When she was little, I was stationed in Germany and we used to visit cathedrals. She used to chase pigeons around the outside for 45 minutes non-stop. She was like 4 or 5 years old,” he recalled.

When Zola was in elementary school, she got her first view of cross country runners.

“I thought, ‘Wow, these people are amazing. I could never.’ Then at (Mililani) middle school, I joined cross country,” she said. “That was in eighth grade. I started track in seventh grade.”

Trojans coach Nathan Aragaki is a master motivator.

“I think my coach is good at pushing us, having a good training routine for us. But definitely a lot of cross country you have to put in the work to get faster and it was hard for a lot of people to stay motivated and keep running, but I was like I have to get faster,” O’Donnell said.

Zola O’Donnell’s lockdown staples

Top 3 movies/shows

1. “Survivor”

“I watch it on Netflix and there’s two seasons. It’s about resilience and survival, and also strategy. I wouldn’t want to go all that way and get voted out. What if it messes up my running, I come back with injuries or something.”

2. “Once”

“It’s a TV series that takes fairy-tale characters and Disney characters and brings them to life, to modern-day life. It used to be on Netflix. It had a lot of seasons. About seven seasons.”

3. “The Great British Baking Show”

“They get their creations to look like works of art. I like how they give the contestants multiple chances.”

Top 3 food/snacks/drink

1. Steak (homemade by dad)

“I try to eat healthy and I try to eat a lot of protein. I like steak, rib eye. I like it kind of rare, more medium rare. My dad (Mike) cooks steaks three times a week.”

2. Furikake ahi

“My mom (Mercedes) makes it. Seared ahi with seaweed and roasted sesame. She makes it once every week or two weeks.”

3. Boba milk tea (Teaspresso at Times Mililani)

Home cooking: “I can make sweet stuff like brownies and bread. I made banana bread for them today.”

Top 3 music artists

1. Ariana Grande – “Breathing”

2. Camila Cabello – “Havana”

3. Star Wars music

“I like the Darth Vader theme song. I learned to play it on the piano. I used to take lesson. I just look it up on YouTube and listen. My brother is 5 years old and he rewatches ‘The Mandalorian’ every month.”

Class: AP Calculus BC

“That’s basically Calculus I and II in one year. I think that I like more complicated problems because I tend to mess up simpler problems. If you get an A, you get a boost of .1.”

Favorite teacher: Mr. (Patrick) Riehle

“He’s my (AP) Calculus teacher. I think he makes math fun with his jokes and he’s good at helping people understand complicated concepts.”

Time machine

“I’m really interested in ancient mysteries. I would like to see the ancient Nazca civilization in Peru. I want to see how they made the Nazca lines. These geoglyphs in the desert and they cover this huge area. It’s still a mystery what they mean and how they were so precise over such a great distance. Maybe they had some sort of tool. It was about 2,000 years ago.”

GPA: 4.1 (before 2021-22 academic year.

“My first quarter GPA this year is 4.6 (weighted). I’m taking AP classes this year. Language and Composition, Biology, US History and Calculus. They’re all one year. I like a challenge. And I also like to get college credit. I think in the end it will save money if I have to do less college classes.”

New life skill

“I got my license to be a lifeguard. I’m certified in CPR and first aid. This was in August. I’m not a lifeguard yet, but I have the certification to be. I’m hoping to get a job after cross country season is over. This is for a pool. Beach lifeguarding is a whole different thing. It was hard to get the lifeguard certificate. At the end, we had to rescue a 150-pound dummy in 10 feet of water. 10 and 15 feet. It was four weeks and one day every week for 6 hours. I wanted to do this on my own. I was a swimmer my freshman year. (In 2020) COVID happened so there was no swim team. Sophomore year the only sport I was able to do was track.”

Pre-race routines

>> “The night before a race, in fact, the whole day before the race, I try to eat how I do on days of cross country practices. Things like sandwiches are perfect. Chicken and rice or bread is a great dinner. Breakfast, I always have oatmeal with chopped-up apple and some cinnamon.

>> “Tiger balm on the legs the night before a race to loosen up muscles. Also, drinking lots of water.”

Winter sports

“I might go back to swimming. I also was thinking about soccer. I was a soccer player. My team ended in freshman year. I started playing in sixth grade. A lot of the cross country girls are soccer girls, too. I think that I have a good training routine and I know my limits on running, but there definitely are dangers when you don’t take a break. That’s why I like swimming. It’s hard and it’s a really tough sport, but it’s easier on your knees.”

Hidden talent

“I like to paint. Acrylic painting. Recently, I made some serious improvements to my painting skills. I’ve been taking art classes since at least fifth grade. I’m not bad at painting people, but I’ve gotten pretty good at painting landscapes and city scapes. Favorite: I like my Venice painting. I found this picture on Pinterest and painted something like, took a picture and posted it on IG. My dog’s in the painting.

Her paintings are viewable on Instagram, @zroseart2021.

Shout outs

“I’d like to give a shout out to my coaches for their guidance, establishing a good training routine of different runs we do on certain days of the week. I’d also like to shout out all my teammates who work so hard every week. They make cross country fun and push me at practice. I would also like to thank everyone who cheers at the meets. Lastly, thank you to my parents who support me, always keeping it positive and telling me not to worry.”


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