Zitelny conquered in the backstroke, butterfly and individual medley as a rookie. Over the course of the season, he posted the team’s fastest time in five different events over the three disciplines. At the 2014 University Athletic Association Championships, Zitelny won the C final in the 200-yard breaststroke to place 17th overall and score nine points for his team.
For Zitelny, it was one event that connected two of his passions: swimming and helping those with cancer.
Last November, head swimming and diving coach Mike Kotch had his team participate in the Ted Mullin Leave it in the Pool: Hour of Power event, a 60-minute-long relay in support of the Ted Mullin Fund for Sarcoma Research. The event, which honors the memory of Mullin, a swimmer at Carleton College in Minnesota who died of sarcoma in 2006, encompasses nearly 200 teams and 8,300 student-athletes across the collegiate swimming world.
When Zitelny was in high school, his best friend’s younger brother was diagnosed with leukemia. Zitelny also experienced an emotionally touching moment at a mall when he saw a mother giving a stuffed animal to her son, who had a shaved head. This, along with the diagnosis of his friend’s brother, motivated Zitelny to form a non-profit organization, Toys for Smiles.
“I realized how comforting it would be for every child affected by cancer to have a new toy. And with that thought, Toys for Smiles was born,” he recalls.
Zitelny’s curiosity about Ted Mullin led him to learn about the Ted Mullin Scholars Program, which supports 10-week cancer research internships at the University of Chicago. Zitelny applied and was accepted.
Working directly with six other undergraduates, two grad students and two post-doctoral researchers under Ken Onel, MD, PhD, Zitelny says he has an entirely new outlook on medical research.
“My lab investigates cancer and genetics and the way the two are tied. My project is specifically investigating cancer evolution within a patient and the way mutations can lead to relapses, specifically in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and extramedullary AML. It teaches me to value achievements and constructively evaluate my work,” he says. “It is truly a humbling experience.”
Zitelny adds, “My future goal is to become a member of an oncological team, working to further understand and treat this debilitating disease. The opportunity has been simply incredible.”
It hasn’t been all work, though. The city of Chicago has provided plenty of time for exploration of the tourist attractions, including Millennium Park and the Willis (previously known as the Sears) Tower. While it’s a different lifestyle than home on Long Island or back in Waltham, Zitelny is looking forward to coming back to campus.
“I’ve already forged friendships that I hope will last a lifetime,” he says. “The swim team is a second family to me. I am counting the days until our season starts.”