Breckenridge church overflows as hundreds celebrate the life of ‘Zeke’
Hundreds filled Saint Mary’s Catholic Church on Friday to honor the life of Jon “Zeke” Zdechlik, a Summit County native, Olympic athlete, coach and a friend to all. As the small church filled to the brim with friends from all stages of Zeke’s life, more still stood outside the doorway, listening with umbrellas in hand on a rainy afternoon.
Sherri Steeves, Zdechlik’s wife, said this church was the very same one where they got married, and baptized each of their children. His best man and her maid of honor gave eulogies at the funeral mass.
The large congregation commented over and over on Zeke’s helpful, joyful nature.
“You were a stranger to Zeke for about 15 to 20 seconds,” said Father Michael Glenn.
“He had a great way of making friends and keeping friends,” said Eddie Bowers, a close friend of Zeke’s. “He would do anything for you.”
Just weeks before he died of lung cancer, Zeke served as a parade marshal in Frisco on the Fourth of July, and continued his work as the general manager of the town’s Adventure Park. Growing up in Summit County, Zeke was an avid skier, competing with the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team.
Returning to Summit, Zeke helped establish the Frisco Nordic Center and then moved on to direct Copper’s Nordic Center, where he met Bowers.
“I’ve always been an alpine guy, and instantly, it was his goal to introduce me to Nordic skiing,” Bowers said. “He’s gotten me so involved in it — I became this huge Nordic fan because of Zeke.”
A willing teacher, Zeke happily helped Bowers’ son learn the ropes of cross-country skiing. But his instruction didn’t end there.
Mike Kendrick, Zeke’s best man, said they met when Zeke taught him how to cross-country ski.
“I was 15 years old and a bit of a mess, as 15-year-old boys often are,” Kendrick laughed.
But Zeke was patient, and showed no hesitation in teaching Kendrick.
“That was Jon. While he was the most talented person in the room, he was also the most giving,” Kendrick said. “He accepted people for who they were.”
Serving as a Nordic coach for the U.S. Paralympic Team, Zeke met two close friends, fellow coaches Jon Kreamelmeyer and Scott Peterson. The three managed to bring home both gold and silver over the course of a few years, as Zeke focused on bringing out the talents of each athlete.
“You had to think outside of the box,” Peterson said. “He was willing to try unconventional things to get the best out of these athletes.”
The three collected many stories, traveling to competitions around the world. Peterson said Zeke tried to learn the language of each country they visited; once Peterson spotted him trying to yodel with a few men in Switzerland.
Being a good sport, Zeke would just smile or laugh when the team pulled their many pranks on him. Zeke, a last-minute packer, once had his Olympic bag decorated in pink hearts and glitter. Later that trip, when he was tossing all of his clothes into the bag, the team tossed a few German sausages in while he wasn’t looking. Kreamelmeyer said they told Zeke of the prank shortly before a dog at the airport’s customs office sniffed it out.
Another time, Peterson put the incorrect wax on Zeke’s skis before the last day of the competition. Taking a running start, Zeke jumped into his boots, making it to the first gate before he hit the ground.
“He was definitely a fantastic friend, that’s for sure,” Peterson said. “He will definitely be missed.”
Solid as stone
Those closest to Zeke were shocked when he was diagnosed with stage-four, small-cell lung carcinoma, or lung cancer, in November of 2013. More than healthy, Zeke was an athlete, and never smoked. But despite the diagnosis, Zeke continued on with his life, working, skiing and teaching up until the weeks before he died at age 54.
“Jon had been fighting this disease for a while. … I could tell that Jon was in some pain, but he never mentioned it,” Kendrick said. “Jon never uttered a word of self-pity in his life. He acknowledged his challenges in the same way he worked with others: openly, and with no remorse or hesitation.”
In his final moments, before he passed away at home on Saturday, July 18, Zeke pulled everyone in for a group hug, speaking to his family with ease.
“He was courageous, he was an unwavering friend to so many. Most importantly, he was a loving father, son, husband and brother,” Kendrick said.
He closed his speech, citing a quote from Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius fitting Zeke’s unwavering strength:
“You should be like a rocky promontory, against which the restless surf continuously pounds. It stands fast, while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet. I hear you say, ‘how unlucky that this should happen to me,’ but not at all. Perhaps instead, how lucky that I am not broken by what happened. And I’m not afraid of what is about to happen. For the same blow might have stricken any one, but not many who would have absorbed it without capitulation and complaint.”
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