COKATO – Sports have meant many things for Dassel-Cokato’s Kezia Lee. A multi-sport athlete, Lee is grateful for the opportunity to be able to continue her athletic career as she signed her National Letter of Intent to run track and field at Winona State University last month.
“Athletics has always been an important part of my life,” Lee said. “Thinking that this part of my life could be over was really scary. Athletics for me is not only about staying in shape, but also creating a team and family bond, maintaining positive mental health, and just being happy.”
Coming from a small town, Lee wasn’t sure if competing at the college level would be an option for her. Despite that, she’s ready to prove to everyone that her hard work has paid off.
“I never thought I was good enough to continue in any of my sports at college, but when I was contacted about running at a few different universities, I got excited,” Lee said. “Coming from a small town we often get downplayed for our abilities and aren’t expected to get very far. I am ready to prove that even though I come from a small town, I can work hard to get where I want to be.”
Lee’s hard work gained the attention of coaches at Winona State and others. Although Lee had the choice between Winona State and Northern State, Lee ultimately decided on the place she felt the most comfortable, a place that felt like her time at D-C.
“My second choice college was Northern State,” Lee said. “The decision between Northern State and Winona State was very close. Both track teams, as well as education programs, are fantastic, so my decision came down to the very small details. Winona has an absolutely beautiful campus and town. Whenever I tell people that I am attending Winona, they comment on how pretty it is. Another key factor to my decision was the team atmosphere with both the players and coaches. At D-C, I have always had amazing coaches that care about both my athletic performance and my well-being. It was very important for me to have that connection still in college. The team bond at Winona also stood out to me. When I went on my college visit I had the opportunity to talk to many of the girls and they were all so welcoming. They were actually interested in my life, what my worries are about college, and they just tried to connect with me as a person.”
Hard work and determination have Lee set to take her talents to the next level. While she’s a big reason for it alone, she knows there were countless people along the way who made this journey possible.
“There are so many people that have impacted my athletic career immensely,” Lee said. “Both of my coaches have played a big role in my life. I have known Nathan Youngs forever from youth swim and track programs. As I began to compete in both swimming and track at varsity levels, coach Youngs helped me develop skills for both sports. As a busy student-athlete, Youngs was always making sure I kept academics first, helped me keep a healthy diet, focused on my mental health, and was very flexible with my busy and ever-changing schedule. My hurdle coach, Zach Pokornowski, has made a huge impact on my life. I still remember my eighth-grade year when he wanted me to try hurdles and I thought he was insane. Being a dancer he thought that the technique would overlap so it would be easy for me to pick up. Let’s just say that was 100 percent false.”
Pokornowski and Lee had a special connection throughout her high school career. He saw the potential in Lee and would give her the extra attention and motivation she needed whenever she wanted.
“Throughout my high school career, he has been able to steal me away from my normal mid-distance running group,” Lee said. “He was always willing to stay later if I was coming from a different running group to work with me. He pushes me to be better every single day. He knows that I want to be successful and he wants me to get there. Both of my coaches believe more in me than I believe in myself. I can’t even express how much they have done for me.”
While sports have meant many things to Lee throughout her high school career, there’s one thing in particular that still motivates her to this day no matter what success she already has had.
“My biggest internal motivation to compete at the collegiate level is proving everyone, including myself, wrong,” Lee said. “I am definitely my hardest critic. I doubt myself and my abilities daily. I honestly can’t wait to get to college and work hard and hopefully be really successful. I do understand that not every day is going to be a walk in the park. In college, I am excited to explore my personality, boundaries, and abilities.”
The recruiting process was a bit different for Lee. While she didn’t get a junior season due to the season being canceled because of COVID-19, college coaches had to look at Lee’s sophomore season. That season was filled with grinding out an injury. That injury still lingers today as Lee continues to work hard to reach her goals.
“Being that we didn’t have a spring season last year, it affected my recruiting process a lot,” Lee said. “College coaches use your junior year times to recruit and give out scholarships, so since that season didn’t happen, they went back to my sophomore year. Not many people know but I had a hip injury my sophomore year that affected my whole season. I had a second-degree tear in my hip flexor. I was very stubborn and ignored it until the pain was unbearable. I was able to finish out the season, but since I had lost weeks of practice, my performance wasn’t at the spot it needed to be. When college coaches were looking at times, they all saw that my times had dropped from my freshman year, which brought up questions. Since I haven’t had a healthy season since my freshman year, it is hard to tell where I am at. This made the decision of even running track in college hard for me as well. Now that my body has matured and I understand that my hip flexor injury is not going to go away on its own, I have tried to be proactive in therapy and stretching. I have already seen improvements in my range of motion and more importantly in pain management. I hope to continue these types of therapy as well as open to trying new things with the athletic training department at Winona State.”
Before Lee takes her talents to Winona State, she has big goals for herself heading into her senior season this spring. After not having a season last year, Lee is determined to finish off her high school career at the state meet this year.
“This upcoming season, I am hoping for some state appearances,” Lee said. “I want to make it back to state in the 300-hurdles and move on to state finals. I am also hoping that our 4×200 relay team can make it to state this year, as well. Another big goal of mine is to just stay healthy with no injuries. This has been an issue in previous years. In the pandemic season, we are in, I understand that the athlete’s safety is of utmost importance for administration, I just really hope to get back out on the track and compete in the sport that I love.”