Sports helped Madison Ziska overcome early childhood struggles, find identity

·6 min read

Jun. 25—Growing up, Madison Ziska's home life was quite turbulent.

To get away from the difficulties of family life at home, Ziska turned to school to find peace and comfort.

"I didn't have the best house to be growing up in, and school was a way to get out," Ziska said, "to be with my friends."

Ziska, who was in elementary school at the time, also relied on sports, specifically basketball and field hockey, to escape the chaos and find solace.

Years later, Ziska became a three-sport athlete at Schuylkill Valley High School, starring in golf, girls basketball and track and field. She is one of five female finalists for the Reading Eagle Athlete of the Year award.

What was initially a healthy outlet for Ziska, sports not only served as a passion, but also became embedded in Ziska's identity.

"Being on a sports team definitely helped a lot with stress and anxiety," Ziska said. "I had sports to show who I was."

Ziska's successful athletic career — and life — did not come without struggles, as the absence of a steady father figure created tough times at home. Along with her mother and siblings, Ziska moved in with her grandparents ahead of her fifth-grade year, her first in middle school.

"She became more comfortable," grandfather Bruce Roth said about Ziska after she moved into his home. "She realized what it can be like to grow up."

Ziska continued to play basketball and field hockey, where she developed strong relationships with her coaches and teammates.

"You could see her change day by day," Roth said. "She had more of a support base behind her."

As she made her way into middle school, Ziska also discovered track and field, which eventually would become her No. 1 sport. She attended a track and field camp held at the high school and immediately began to look up to the high school athletes, many of them medal winners at the District 3 and state levels.

"You see these people and you want to become them when you're older," Ziska said. "I wanted to be them."

It was also at camp that Ziska tried the long jump for the first time, and was immediately hooked. She became a manager for the middle school track and field team beginning in fifth grade, before eventually competing.

"She loves competition," Roth said. "(We) knew that track was going to be her sport by middle school."

With her basketball and track and field careers taking off, Ziska ultimately made the decision to stop playing field hockey and try a much different game. She turned to Roth, who also served as Schuylkill Valley's golf coach, and said, "I want to play golf."

Roth agreed. He took her to the driving range and then the course. After just a couple sessions together, Roth recognized Ziska's potential.

"It was just impressive the way she caught onto it," Roth said. "I didn't push her into it."

Not long after she picked up golf, Ziska debuted as a three-sport athlete at the high school and continued to develop. While her athletic career blossomed through her first two years of high school, Ziska's academics did not.

However, when college track and field coaches began recruiting Ziska midway through her high school career, she strove to improve her grades.

"She did a complete turnaround," Roth said. "She knew she had to keep the grades up. That was a big boost to her academic endeavors."

After Ziska's sophomore track and field season was wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she returned as a junior and helped lead the Panthers to the PIAA Class 2A team title, the first state team title for any female sport at Schuylkill Valley. Ziska finished third in the 200, fourth in the long jump, seventh in the 400 and was a member of the 400 relay team, which finished third.

"Maddy has always been more of a quiet leader," Panthers track and field co-coach Terry McKechnie said. "She leads by example."

Ziska followed that state-championship track and field season with a successful senior year, qualifying for districts in golf, girls basketball and track and field. She also garnered All-Berks honors in all three sports for the first time in her career, and was named the Berks Track and Field Female Athlete of the Year.

"All the coaches knew about her growing-up situation, and gave her the support," Roth said. "That's how she paid them back, by trying to do her best all the time."

In golf, Ziska finished third in the county championships and qualified for the District 3 championships in Class 2A. Ziska is the third member her family to play golf for Schuylkill Valley, as Roth also coached her mother, Jill, and her older sister, Olivia.

"It was an overall thrill for me being able to coach all three of them," Roth said. "Seeing her develop, I was overly proud."

In her second season as a team captain on the girls basketball team over the winter, Ziska helped guide Schuylkill Valley to a 20-4 record and an appearance in the District 3 Class 4A playoffs, marking the Panthers' first 20-win season since 2007-08. She led the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game.

"She really, truly embraced and cherished her time as a high school athlete," Schuylkill Valley girls basketball coach Jason Bagenstose said. "She was living in the moment."

In track and field this spring, Ziska set a school record in the long jump at 18-1.75 at the Panther Invitational. She broke that mark with a jump of 18-2 on the final attempt of her career at the PIAA Track and Field Championships in May. At the state championships, she finished third in the long jump and fourth in the 200 in Class 2A.

"Having to go through what I did definitely helped me mature earlier than I had to," Ziska said. "I'm a very humble person when it comes to track and sports, and I feel like having matured early helped me be like that."

In addition to all the success and accolades, Ziska's athletic career taught her a lot about perseverance.

"It showed me that I'm strong enough to overcome any kind of crappy situation," Ziska said.

----

Throughout her high school years, Ziska volunteered with the Special Olympics and at the Schuylkill Valley youth track and field camp. She worked with the children, teaching them about the long jump and other track and field events.

"I like to work with kids," Ziska said. "I love to see their faces light up when they see someone that they can look up to performing."

A former camper herself, Ziska said she felt a sense of responsibility to work at the camp and pay it forward to the next group of Panthers athletes.

"To be able to work with people who helped work with me, I feel like I'm supposed to be a part of that," Ziska said.

Working with both the Special Olympics and campers inspired Ziska to pursue an early childhood education major at Mansfield University, where she will continue her academics and track and field career. Ziska said she hopes to support the next generation of kids, just as her coaches and teammates supported her during her tumultuous early years.

"I like to help others," Ziska said. "I want to be an outlet for little kids."