Many people feel they spend their time jumping through hoops and navigating hurdles, and end up drained by the effort. Eliana Yankelev, a senior at Lower Merion High School, spends much of her time jumping actual hurdles -- and seems to do it effortlessly.
"I get really nervous before big races. I can't eat breakfast; I'm really hot, and my mouth is dry," she says, describing her state on racing days. "When I warm up on the track, I tell myself, 'You've done this a million times before; this is no different. It's just eight steps to the first hurdle and three between -- that's all you need to know.' But when I'm running, I don't think at all. The only thing going through my head is: finish line! It works for me."
Apparently it does, because last month, Eliana became the Pennsylvania State Champion in the 60-meter hurdles event at the indoor track and field high school championship.
Eliana, who stands 5 feet 8 inches, holds the record for fastest 60-meter hurdler at Lower Merion High School (8.87 seconds), and is second in the state (she shadows No. 1 by two one-hundredths of a second). She also holds the school's record for 100-meter hurdles and has been honored annually with the All Main Line, All Central League and All State coaches' selections.
With her rigorous practice schedule, she stays after school daily until 4:45 p.m. Three days a week, she's also training with a private club team, Sports Extra, until 9:30 p.m. She often starts doing homework around 10 p.m.
Her athletic achievements, coupled with academic prowess, won her an early admission scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. "When I got accepted, I screamed, I cried, I yelled, Baruch Hashem," she recalls. "I applied to only one school and got in. Now I'm the one telling the younger girls to start researching colleges early."
Her only regret about Penn is that her scholarship prohibits a gap year before starting college, which she had been planning to take in Israel with her Habonim Dror friends. In consolation, she is hoping to do a semester abroad in Israel.
Recruited by many top schools, she chose Penn, she says, not only because "having Franklin Field as your home turf is pretty freakin' cool," but also because she intends to major in a unique course of study there: the Biological Basis of Behavior, combined with Holocaust Studies. Her goal is "to understand the science of hatred." Plus, at Penn, "It's easier to keep kosher and go home for Shabbat dinner sometimes."
As one might expect, her mother, Marsha Factor Yankelev, is filled with pride over her daughter's achievements. "She is very focused, very dedicated, very organized, so consistent," she says. "She works harder than anyone else I know."
Eliana was an "overly energetic" child who "always loved running around, climbing and jumping over things."
Eliana attended Perelman Jewish Day School where a teacher would set up little hurdles for her outside on the grass. She ran faster than the boys and enjoyed playing football.
At Bala Cynwyd Middle School, her attention turned to softball and soccer. But in high school, she began year-round track practice, indoor and outdoor.
A pivotal moment set her path. "I remember my first race," Eliana recalls. "I didn't know what I was doing, but I nearly broke the freshman record. I decided to do it -- to concentrate on technique and work on improving. I've had great coaching."
"Track is very emotional," she says. "You must have a good attitude and believe in yourself. The state championship didn't just happen; it was the culmination of years of work. It's very satisfying and kind of crazy."
Even with her demanding practice schedule, Eliana continued her Jewish studies at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood through Bat Mitzvah and confirmation.
"I love being Jewish; it's a huge part of my life," the young athlete says. "I spend my summers at Camp Galil, first as a camper and now teaching kids how to love being Jewish. It's given me a great appreciation for my family." She has an older brother and sister; her parents divorced when she was 11.
Her mother maintains a strictly kosher home. When she was younger, they attended synagogue weekly. But she'll practice or race on Shabbat. "We're Conservative, not frum," she said.
Although track is a solo sport, she finds that "you get to know the people you compete with year after year." She was excited when her friend Katelynn Williams at Plymouth Meeting High School came in second in the state championship.
"We'd realized our goal of sweeping the title. It was very exciting," she says, adding: "And when was the last time a nice Jewish girl won the state hurdles' championship?"