The week before Thanksgiving last year, Jon “Zeke” Zdechlick had the typical holiday thoughts and plans running through his mind.
So when he went to the doctor’s office to get a lump near his collarbone examined, he was not prepared for the diagnosis a biopsy revealed several days later — stage IV small cell carcinoma, also known as lung cancer.
“They said, you’re going to be in chemo Thanksgiving week,” said Zdechlik.
Despite this, he said he “enjoyed turkey day,” and the Frisco Adventure Park, where he is the general manager, “ran like clockwork; my staff was just awesome.”
Staying positive in the face of adversity is a trait Zdechlik has mastered throughout years as an athlete, coach, father and mentor, and one that is serving him well now.
“I say a prayer for everyone who went through chemo before me, because it completely changes who you are,” Zdechlik said. Although he hasn’t experienced all of the treatment’s side effects, he’s lost his hair and has a constant ringing in his ears. His 6-foot-tall frame is lean but not overly skinny. He doesn’t know if that will change or not.
“It’s a journey,” he said, and he’s learning every bump.
He can trace his illness back to August, when he began to feel poorly, but beyond that he has no idea where the diagnosis came from, especially since he’s a non-smoker.
So far he’s gone through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, which he jokingly calls “good rat poison.” He travels to the Shaw Regional Cancer Center in Edwards for treatment and said he’s been surprised to run into a number of acquaintances there.
“I think it (cancer) touches a lot more people than I realized before this,” he said. “It’s incredible how small the world is.”
Summit County native
Zdechlik, 53, grew up in Summit County, attending school when the elementary, middle and high schools were housed in the same building. He graduated in a class of fewer than 70 students and afterward was named to the U.S. Nordic Combined Team.
“I chased the passion to be an Olympian,” he said, for about five years, but “I just fell short.”
His next stop was the University of Vermont, skiing for the team there and earning a degree in recreation management and a minor in business. Then he returned to Summit County and went to work at Copper Mountain Resort.
Zdechlik’s career at Copper ranged from work on the trail crew and at the Nordic center to supervising snowmaking and slope maintenance. Then in 1995, when he and his wife were expecting their third child, he quit his job to stay home with the kids.
“I was Mr. Mom for about 15 years,” he said. “It was (a fun job) and, to be honest, every morning I’d wake up to say a prayer for all the mothers in the world — can I make it another day, please? It’s incredibly difficult but incredibly satisfying.”
In addition to being a father to four children, Zdechlik has coached many athletes, from young kids to Paralympians. He was one of the coaches for the U.S. adaptive Nordic ski team for about 15 years, a job he describes as “incredible” and “motivating.”
Jon Kreamelmeyer also coached with Zdechlik.
“We had an amazing run for about seven or eight years, where we had athletes who were just not selfish at all and everybody wanted what was best for everybody else and everyone worked together. It was one of those unique things where teams just come together, and it doesn’t always happen, and we had it,” he said, mentioning, in particular, the 2000 World Cups and 2002 Paralympics at Salt Lake City, Utah. “It was always fun and I will say that all the athletes that were on the team had a great deal of respect for Zeke and appreciated his coaching and his style and his philosophy.”
After stepping down from his adaptive coaching position, Zdechlik continued on to various jobs around the county, including managing a ranch in Silverthorne, participating in Frisco town government and acting as directive coordinator for the Gold Run Nordic Center. There he became involved with developing programming to teach young children how to Nordic ski, something he’s still passionate about today.
“I was so fortunate growing up. You don’t realize it as you’re going through the different levels. I got to a really elite level of skiing and you don’t realize all the people that are involved that help you reach your goals, and all of a sudden the epiphany slaps you in the head, and you go, ‘Holy cow, look at what all those people did for me.’ So … you’ve gotta give it back,” he said.
For the past two years, Zdechlik has been general manager of the Frisco Adventure Park, a job he loves because it allows him to share his passion for winter and summer outdoor sports with hundreds of people every year.
“I spend a lot of time just wandering around (the lodge) talking to people. It’s really fun to connect with them and enjoy it as well,” he said. Going out on the tubing hill, for example, “it’s something that you don’t need a skill (to do). If you can walk and sit you’re dialed in, and then the screams and just the laughter and smiles, … it’s so cool to see all the families come out and walk out of here with smiles on their faces.”
Zeke’s healing event
The local community — many of whom have known Zdechlik and his family for years — is gathering around him now in a show of emotional and financial support. Zeke’s Healing Event, planned for Saturday, April 5, at the Frisco Adventure Park, is a fundraiser to help the Zdechlik family with medical costs and to give community members the chance to show their support and celebrate how they know Zdechlik.
Ask any of Zdechlik’s friends about memorable moments they’ve had with him and all kinds of stories surface, from the hilarious (a prank involving sausages at an airport security check, another about an exorbitant fake bill for tree removal) to the touching (taking a friend’s 4-year-old son out for his first snowcat ride).
Perhaps the story most revealing of Zdechlik’s personality is one related by Kreamelmeyer, who remembered watching him take a particularly unfortunate run down a ski jump.
“Zeke jumped and … he lost a ski in the air, and I was just amazed how he held it together. He did fall, but he fell gracefully and that always intrigued me, too, about him. He seems to be able to handle no matter what comes at him. He seems to handle it with dignity and strength.”
The fundraiser and the effort going into it has “blown me away,” Zdechlik said. “I’m so blessed; I think this community is blessed. … It’s different being on the receiving end but it’s lovely, it really is. I think it’s going to be just one heck of a shindig.”