ABERDEEN, N.J. – The focus was on footwork as Victoria Zuppa began moving slowly across the grass behind Matawan (N.J.) Regional High School, before she picked up speed and launched the javelin towards the horizon with an effort that was equal parts athletic ability and emotional release, just days before recording a personal best to place first at an NJSIAA sectional meet.
Earlier, she’d been seated in the aluminum bleachers nearby, describing how the workload associated with a schedule filled with advanced placement classes was actually a welcome respite. She spoke confidently about the dream of a future spent helping others — one that in many respects, mirrors her daily existence.
Because these hallways and athletic fields are a sanctuary for an 18-year-old forced to grow up fast.
An escape from a real-life reality that could have — and maybe should have — crushed her spirit, yet only made her stronger.
“Sports and academics are very important to me,” said Zuppa, who everyone calls Tori. “You can take off the cloak that you have to wear at home and put on a new one. You can be a scholar, an athlete, a cadet. Anything that you want to be. You can pave your own destiny and you don’t have to be defined by what you must deal with at home, all the tragedies around you, all the losses. You can make a better future for yourself.”
In the face of adversity, Zuppa now seems unstoppable, which is why she’s nominated for the Courage Award at the Asbury Park Press Sports Awards on June 14 at the Count Base Theater in Red Bank, where 350 of the Jersey Shore’s finest high school athletes will be honored.
“It is remarkable because I know everything going on,” said Justin Bloss, who has taught and coached Zuppa for most of her high school career. “And to see her come to school every day smiling and being so positive regardless of how much is going on with her, it’s truly amazing.”
Tragedy, times three
Tori Zuppa was living what she calls the “white picket fence lifestyle” when she entered high school. After her parents divorced, she and her mother, Sandra, moved into her grandparents’ home along Matawan Creek.
“We had animals, we had friends over, we had family coming over,” she said.
Since then, her personal timeline is dotted with a chronology of exact dates and unforgettable moments that have inexorably altered that idyllic existence.
Zuppa was a freshman playing field hockey and trying to forge an identity, both academically and socially, when on Nov. 15, 2013 she made the 911 call as her beloved grandmother, Maryalice Korkowski, suddenly fell ill. She died in her arms, with Zuppa receiving her last words: I love you, too, Victoria.
“I was very close to my grandmother. I spent every day with her. She was basically like another mother to me,” she said. “That really pushed me forward my freshman year.”
Zuppa didn’t want to run winter track that year, but she did, and still hasn’t missed a season of athletics, or taken a step back in the classroom.
“My grandmother was always so proud of me that I was able to balance academics and athletics, so I kept pushing forward because I knew that was what she would want for me, and that’s what was best for me ultimately,” she said.
Then there’s the image of the thick black smoke rising into the sky in the distance on June 3, 2014, as Zuppa and her mother made their way from Cliffwood Beach back across Route 35.
“I prayed for whatever family was going through it,” she said. “And then I was the one going through it.”
Their home was completely engulfed in flames, a six-alarm blaze from which her grandfather, Raymond Korkowski, a disabled Korean War veteran, barely escaped, with a neighbor pulling him out after he collapsed near the front door.
“When I came up on my house, that was the worst feeling you could ever feel in your life,” she said. “Particularly because it’s your identity, your home. It’s what defines you in a sense. You have all your clothes, all your awards. Everything that you’ve ever worked hard for, everything you’ve ever paid for, everything that means something to your family.”
Then, in August, Zuppa’s mother was diagnosed with throat and intestinal cancer. So as her senior year was set to begin, she became the primary caregiver for both her mom and her 86-year-old grandfather in the small home they now occupy.
Beyond added daily responsibilities and household chores, it’s the emotional impact that’s extracted the greatest toll.
“It’s very difficult to watch the one person you always see as your strength, the person who brought you into this world, and see them near the brink of being taken out of this world,” she said. “To see my mother hunching over when she tries to lift up even the laundry and can’t even do that. To watch my mother not really be able to eat because it will come back up. She can barely sleep from the pain.
“To come home that every day is very difficult. And for her to say, ‘Victoria, focus on yourself, it’s OK.’ I understand that’s very selfless of her.”
Zuppa’s father, Tom, who lives in Edison, N.J., has watched in amazement as his daughter has matured amid the adversity.
“She has never missed a beat and managed to stay focused,” he said. “I want to say she gets it from her mother because I don’t know how I would deal with some of the stuff she went through.
“The leadership she shows is just outstanding. I work with a teen youth group at church and she has been going for a number of years. She volunteered to help mentor kids if they wanted to talk to someone closer to their age. She said they can call her any time.”
Even though she’s up late doing homework every night, her focus remains on helping others.
“I like to keep it close,” she said, “because I understand that while I may be going through a lot there are others who may have it ten times worse. So I like to be the one who makes them smile instead of them having pity me because I don’t want that.”
Zuppa will enroll at Virginia Military Institute this summer. Her plans include being commissioned into the U.S. Army, returning to get her master’s degree and becoming a behavioral analyst for the FBI.
Because while her faith has been tested, it’s only served to strengthen her resolve.
“I remember saying, ‘How could a god do this? How could someone who is supposed to be so great and work these miracles create this tragedy,’ ” she said. “But I have just realized following all this stuff that everything happens for a reason.
“Even though all of this happened to me, I was still able to rise.”