By Natalie Chen
Kai Zettel is among the top Cross Country runners for Mercer Island and in 2A/3A KingCo, finishing top 10 in five meets during the regular season, and finishing 12th during the KingCo Conference Championship with a time of 17:08.7 minutes in the 5K race.
With over 100 students participating, Mercer Island Cross Country is one of the largest sports teams at Mercer Island High School. Cross Country’s size makes it difficult to climb the ranks, especially for incoming freshman, but this is not the case for Zettel.
Most cross runners are not able to surpass the 20 minute mark, let alone beat it by three minutes.
Head coach Susan Empey noted that Zettel is the only runner to come close to the school’s record in the past 20 years, a reputable feat for a freshman.
Zettel brings energy and excitement with his talent, a welcoming fit to the cross country atmosphere, according to Empey.
“[Cross Country] has a very family feel to the team, and he’s a nice team member,” Empey said. “I think he’s gained a lot from the team too, and certainly given a lot to the team.”
Zettel started cross country in middle school, joining MIXC with a few years of experience under his belt. Although Kai is a natural-born runner, he still faces challenges.
“The day of and before the meet is really nerve-racking and there’s a lot of pressure,” Zettel said.
To calm these nerves, Zettel says he enjoys the long-running tradition of team dinners.
“Our team normally has a pasta feed the day or the night before so we get carbo-loaded,” Kettel said.
Senior captain Karsten Mullins explained that Zettel brings a new level of competitiveness to the team, pushing his teammates to train harder both during practice and races.
“In races, people pace with him and are able to continue running faster and longer thanks to this new blood of the team,” said Mullins.
Zettel enjoys his cross country family, and feels especially impacted by participating on the team.
“I feel proud to represent Mercer Island,” said Zettel. “The captains work really hard to make it a fun experience — they got a lot of spirit, they prepare us, as much as possible, for what’s coming up.”
Zettel raced extremely well at Districts, qualifying for the 3A State Championships. He jumped from being seeded 58 to finishing 36, well within the qualifying ranks of the top 42.
Zettel ran a 17:01.2, making him the youngest individual in the district to qualify.
Due to the unprecedented start of his Cross Country career, Zettel is definitely on a list of athletes to watch, and his next three years should be exciting to see.