Dorota Zalewska needed a mental break.
The one she got early in her University of Tennessee at Chattanooga golf career wasn't planned, but in hindsight, there's no doubt it was necessary — because it's clear the time off essentially turned her game around.
Zalewska joined the Mocs in 2018 and had some solid moments as an underclassman, but there was frustration as well. Then in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, Zalewska was forced to go back home to Poland, and it was at that time she considered quitting golf altogether.
What would she have done? Doesn't matter, although Zalewska admitted she would "probably stay with sports." Maybe she could have just become a doctor, but golf wasn't in her plans.
Back in Poland, there was time to spend with family. With friends. Time to just have a normal routine, which was hard to do previously because she'd put all of her energy and effort into golf and little into anything else.
Being away helped her rediscover her love of the game, because at the end of the day, it is just a game, right? She had been struggling with something a ton of people struggle with — finding and maintaining a work-life balance — and the mental break helped.
"I had to remember that I'm 21, 22, 23," she said this week. "I do still need to enjoy life and social life, so that's what I did, and that's what I'm doing now. My friend reminded me that golf is my work and I should separate my private life from my work. So I'd practice; once I finished, I went home and just relaxed.
"I could just be myself."
So she returned to Chattanooga with a new perspective.
It showed in her results immediately, then helped springboard her to consecutive All-Southern Conference selections the past two years, highlighted by winning the individual title this year. She followed that by finishing as the medalist last week in an NCAA regional in Raleigh, North Carolina — she is the first regional champ in UTC women's golf history and set the program's 54-hole scoring record at 12 under par — to qualify for the national championship tournament, which starts Friday at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. Her current scoring average of 72.48 strokes per round ranks as the best in program history.
In addition, she recently graduated with a degree in exercise science — this week, she was named the SoCon student-athlete of the week, receiving the honor for a third time — and will have sponsorships that allow her to play golf and stay in the country.
"Two years ago, she was wondering what she was going to do with her life," UTC coach Colette Murray said. "I think that's actually part of what led into what was so difficult this semester for her, because she had such a great senior year and then she had such a great super senior year and her average was incredible. Her golf was off the charts.
"But then there were the unknowns: 'Am I going to get to stay in America? Am I going to have a visa? A job? Do I need to get an apartment? Am I going to graduate? What do I do?' We all go through it, and everything that happened the week prior to regionals couldn't have been better timing. All of the stuff that had been on her mind and she'd be worried about for the last six months were all kind of put to bed, and she was able to just be comfortable, be in a good place and be in a really stable mindset. Everything just came together at the right time for her."
Now she has a chance to win the first NCAA Division I title in UTC history. She'll be part of a 155-player field at Grayhawk, where the 72-hole tournament will have a 54-hole cut, with the top 15 teams advancing along with the top nine individuals not on those teams.
There was a time when she may have approached this weekend feeling a certain measure of pressure. But for Zalewska, that pressure no longer exists.
"I've done all the practices I needed to, and now I just want to go out there, spend time with the coaches and enjoy and play golf," she said. "At the end of the day, we play golf, so we'll see how it goes, but for sure I want to enjoy every second of it."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org.