Zola Golden made the journey south from her home in the suburb of Lagrangeville, New York, to the Bronx at least three times a week when she was younger.
It was all for one goal — to improve her skills in the sport that she loved.
“My coach lived in the city, so to get to him, my mom had to drop me off at the station and I would take the train,” Golden said.
On a good day, the commute took approximately two hours each way. Golden completed this routine her entire junior and senior years of high school. However, the more success she found on the track, the more determined she was to keep going.
Her dedication caught the eyes of Texas coaches Mario Sategna and Tonja Buford-Bailey. They became enticed with the sprinter’s competitiveness and began recruiting her to come to the 40 Acres. Golden did not take her decision lightly.
“I remember watching her in high school and just (thinking), ‘The girl can run!’” Buford-Bailey said. “It was a struggle to get her here, but I always felt like, with our stable of quarter-milers that we had at the time, that she would fit in really great.”
The recruitment worked — Golden’s relationship with Buford-Bailey blossomed after meeting in person and the University’s academic and athletic status helped make up her mind. She debuted for the Longhorns in 2016 and was a member of the 4x400 meter relay team that took first place in the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
“I probably talked more with her mom than I did with Zola,” Sategna said. “That was a big move for her, coming from New York. But I knew if we could get her here on campus that she would just fall in love with Coach Tonja, the facilities, as well as the team dynamic.”
Now in her sophomore season, the first team All-American has assumed a leadership role on the women’s team. Her diligence and reserved personality reminds others of her former teammate, Courtney Okolo, who claimed a gold medal for Team USA at the 2016 Olympics.
“She’s so quiet, you never even hear from her, you never know she’s there,” Buford-Bailey said. “She’s an unsung hero on this team. She’s doing well in the classroom, not hanging out and partying, just totally focused on what she’s doing here, and that makes the difference.”
Filling an Olympic gold medalist’s shoes is a formidable task. However, rather than intimidating Golden, the challenge inspires her. She’s been encouraged by her recent performances, including a seventh-place finish in the 400-meter dash in the finals of the NCAA Indoor Championships in March.
“It was really exciting for me,” Golden said. “I don’t want to say I’m satisfied, but I’m really happy with my improvement.”
This weekend, it will only take Golden 15 minutes to travel to Mike A. Myers Stadium, where she will be competing in a trio of events at the Texas Invitational. But her lasting journey of leading her team to success will be the same as usual.
“She’s not the most vocal, doesn’t say a whole lot, but takes care of business,” Sategna said. “But her actions out here and her discipline speaks volumes. You want other people to latch on to that type of work ethic.”